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Café A Go Go

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

What lies between the awkwardness of adolescence and the ambitious undertakings of adulthood? To the Heather Brothers, who have written, directed, and choreographed Café a Go Go, the answer is - well - Café a Go Go. Their vision is of a trendy, 1966 English nightspot as the place where kids go to rest and adults are born. It proves to be more of a waiting room where 1960s sights and sounds go before passing into obscurity.

Or, perhaps, until they're refashioned this show into something with the imagination and creative verve of Hairspray, which is but one of the silent ghosts haunting Café a Go Go as it struggles through two hours of over-antic amusement and strained jocularity. The other is Tony n' Tina's Wedding, which, with the same producers and even the same theater, just finished up a landmark run, yet mastered the sense of informal fun with an ease Café a Go Go could only hope to aspire to.

But, unlike the previous tenant, which thrived on its improvisational aspects and flourished in the cramped almost-but-not-quite theater space, Café a Go Go never lives here; this is not a concept show. Rather, it's a book show with an incredibly weak book, or a concert show with a thread of a book and a series of mostly weak songs. The café setting is silly more than anything else, seldom seriously utilized in the action, and it serves to distance you from the characters, performing with the band onstage. (The musical direction and arrangements, by Gigi Hageman-Teeley and Tom Teeley are fine as far as they go, if amplified a shade too heavily in the small space.)

Of course, the characters themselves don't help, being of entirely the stock variety. They're all here - the young man longing for his first sexual experience (Zachary Gilman), the young woman aching to forget hers (Jasika Nicole Pruitt), the overachieving lothario (Wade Fisher), the socially aloof sexpot (Stacie May Hassier), the self-assured guy who promises he can get her by the end of the night (John-Mark McGaha), and even the omnipresent club owner (Vin Adinolfi).

The thin threads of the story are wrapped in the perfunctory vulgarity and given the requisite modicum of stage time, primarily only to set up the next song or two, few of which prove to be worth the wait. There's one song of exceeding cleverness ("P.E.") and one of surprising purity ("Twiggy," delivered by the ingratiating yet underused Jessica Cannon), and one with a melody engaging enough to stick around more than a few seconds after it ends ("Slice of Saturday Night").

The others are more familiar in style and less distinct overall, a mostly typical collection of girl group numbers, guy group numbers, boy versus girl numbers, and even fawning duets. Of course, these can succeed in a 1960s musical (or any musical) if the characters are strong enough to support them. But Café a Go Go doesn't have characters, it has sketches. Only a couple of the performers can escape this: Cannon, though underused, is winning during her few moments in the spotlight, and Fisher's Chris Kattan-type voice and appeal is generally right, if poured on a bit too thick.

Everyone else, in manner and appearance (Brian Giacchetto is credited as the costume coordinator), seems to have stepped off the set of the next Austin Powers film. And Café a Go Go, overall, seldom employs the restraint or dramatic judgment those movies do, so it's an uphill battle for the cast and crew from the start. Observing this show is less entering a time warp to 1966 than looking through the cracked window of an abandoned house without the warmth, love, and care that made it a home.

The waitresses - tall, bedecked in tight-fitting dresses, and cracking wise as they serve drinks to the crowd - are the most authentically engaging part of Café a Go Go, though their presence is somewhat scarce when they're most needed - during the show. They're a more effective throwback than the one the Heather Brothers have created, which makes one long for 2003 far more than 1966.

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Café a Go Go
Café A Go Go Theatre, 221 West 46th Street
Running Time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101