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[whitespace] Barry Merry

'Copacabana' showcases Barry Manilow's jazz instincts

By Michael J. Vaughn

I SUPPOSE the opening-night crowd at American Musical Theater expected just about anything from Barry Manilow's Copacabana--except perhaps the composer himself showing up to perform the encore. "Now that Stephen ... has finished composing the song," asked maestro Barry, "would you like to hear the song?" (The crowd said, in essence, "Yes.") "Stephen," played by Franc D'Ambrosio, is Manilow's onstage substitute, a young songwriter who's toying around with a catchy little song about the old Copacabana nightclub. The fetal tune sends Stephen off into a 1947 Copa daydream that turns, voilà!, into a full-blown musical. (You show up expecting Mandy, you get Bertolt Brecht--go figger.)

You can hardly blame Manilow and co-writers Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman for taking the postmodern route. "Copa" is such an infectious ditty that for years my friends and I have used it as a sort of audio White-out for unwanted songs that get stuck in your head. Just think, "Her name was Lola ... " and all other tunes pack their suitcases. With an elephant like that in the room, you have to at least give the audience a little self-aware wink.

There are many who express instinctive dread at the notion of a Manilow musical, but I knew he had a powerful ace up his sleeve: years of demonstrable prowess with good old bring-out-the-horns swing jazz. I'm happy to report that Manilow has played that ace in spades. The fun begins with the "Sing Sing Sing" drumbeat of "Dancin' Fool," an intro piece for Tony (also played by D'Ambrosio) and his Copa Boys, filled with choreographer Wayne Cilento's nods to Jerome Kern. Manilow continues with a little demonstration of the form, as Tony takes "Man Wanted," Lola's dirgelike loser of an audition piece, and swings it to a fine froth.

The next entry is the Copa Girls' "I Gotta Be Bad," flirty sexiness reminiscent of Adelaide and her Kit-Kat girls from Guys 'n' Dolls. After that we meet the villainous Rico (Philip Hernandez), owner of Havana's Tropicana Club, and Manilow slides nicely southward with "Welcome to Havana," highlighted by Conchita's (Terry Burrell's) manic, yipping vocals and some hot percussion work from Aaron Russell and Jeffrey S. Snider.

But then, there are the ballads--otherwise known as land mines. One would hope Manilow might craft us a "Round Midnight" or "I Could Write a Book," but, alas, his "Sweet Heaven" and "Who Needs to Dream," Tony's tributes to the wonders of Lola, are plodding, musically uninteresting anthems. The sole keeper is "This Can't Be Real," which, set against Stephen's reality crisis, frees Manilow from having to be so damn uplifting all the time.

As for the company, ingenues D'Ambrosio and Roberts head up director David Warren's fine, energetic cast, nicely equipped with two comic relievers, retired Copa Girl Gladys Murphy (Beth McVey) and laughably inept Copa manager Sam Silver (Dale Radunz). Hernandez makes of Rico Castelli an elegant viper, the kind of anti-Bond who will lend a charming smile right before he gives his girlfriend Conchita (Burrell) a good whack across the face. Burrell is compensated for this abuse with all the best lines.

Perhaps the most remarkable, and wise, move from the Copa-creators was to leave the Song not fully sung until that memorable curtain call. They also saw fit to stray from the song's narrative, providing a little helpful freshness and a handful of surprises. Perhaps the best news for He Who Writes the Songs is that, next time out, he can just do a show from scratch and leave that melodic Cuban elephant out of the room. For which project, my best advice would be: Swing, Barry. Swing until you cain't swing no more.

Copacabana plays Tuesday-Sunday through Jan. 28 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $40-$60. (888.455.SHOW)

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From the January 18-24, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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