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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Copacabana
a Cumbersome Musical
Without any Imagination

Also see these recent reviews:
The Illusion | Glengarry Glen Ross | Enter the Guardsman

The starting line of the Barry Manilow’s hit song is “Her name was Lola; she was a showgirl”. My answer? So that is what she was. When Lola descended from the top of a staircase for a job at the Copa, speaking a terrible Oklahoma accent, I cringed in my seat. Fifteen minutes into the production Lola became a royal pain in the butt. Why, oh, why did the director have Darcie Roberts speak with that shrill accent? She could have come from Allentown, Pa. or Columbus, Ohio. Now I have nothing against Darcie personally. I thought she was excellent in the ill-fated Busker’s Alley. It looked like this young talent was going places, even if the Tommy Tune musical was a bomb.

The plot of the musical is built around the fantasies of Stephen, played by Franc D'Ambrosio, a present day New York songwriter hammering out a new tune. Now you can guess what that tune is. Suddenly the scene changes to New York in 1940 and there is Lola. Franc suddenly becomes Tony the singing bartender. Clever isn’t it?

Lola, in a matter of fifteen minutes, gets a job at the world famous Copa, has the bartender-singer fall in love with her and even becomes the lead dancer of the Copa chorus. No doubt about it, she is one fast worker. Oh, and when she does the lead chorus girl dance in the night club number, she dances like Ruby Keeler. It is more stomping then tap dancing. The whole number is like something you might see at a cheap night club in Moline, Illinois. That is if there is a night club in that city. These gals are not the Rockettes.

There is a Girl Friday, played by Beth McVey, an Eve Arden character with a heart of gold. She tries to make the best of the one line corny zingers. These lines have shown up in every “B” film made in the 40s and 50s. An example: “I stunk so bad I thought my middle initials were P.U.”  Funny isn’t it?

Lola quickly attracts the attention of mobster Rico, played by Philip Hernandez, who drugs her and whisks her off to Cuba. Rico sees Lola as a replacement for his current girl friend who is a star of the largest night club in world, the Tropicana in Havana. Conchita is played by Terry Barrell who sounds more Puerto Rican then Cuban. Strangely enough, she is made to sound like Charo.

At about 9:15, Tony and the Copa owner show up in Havana and rescue Lola from a number that tries to look like the MGM musical of Cole Porter’s The Pirate. Rico gets shot and the lovers go back to New York. Don’t ask how or why. I don’t know. Suddenly the dream is over and we are back with Stephen in modern day New York. There is a little drama there that I won’t go into. Just think Wizard of Oz and you will get the picture. I like the line that Stephen says to the audience. “Oh well, I just can’t get a handle on the song, anyways it would never become popular”. Ha, Ha, Ha.

I have to say one thing that is a little off the subject. I started in the film business at Republic Studios in Studio City. At the time of my apprenticeship, Republic put out a series of low grade “B” type musical movies. I swear the plot of Copacabana came from one of these movies. Looking at the musical on stage, I could only think, “Oh my God, it's those old and easily forgotten Republic or Fox musical movies of the 40s ... ” I kept thinking Alice Faye or Betty Gable was going to come out onto the stage. Maybe even John Payne or Don Ameche would come out in the male role and Carmen Miranda would do a specialty act. The only difference was that the Fox movie musicals had more passion, more color and they didn’t rely as flagrantly on stock characters as this production did. This musical had drab colors and it had a warehouse look with a winding staircase that turns up in every scene. The Copa has the staircase with a neon sign, Grand Central station has the same staircase with a clock and even Havana has the staircase with palm trees in the background of a lighted orange screen. There was a scene were chorus girls descended the staircase with Christmas tree lights on their headdress. It looked like a mini road show version of Ziegfeld Follies that used to play in Ohio.

There is just one more number I need to talk about. There is a bolero at the end of the first act that you wont believe. I think Ravel would be spinning in his grave were he to hear this rip off of his “Bolero”. This beat goes on, and on ... and on. I said to my companion, "enough, already ... " Intermission followed and when we come back, guess what the orchestra is playing. Yes, the same damn bolero.

One of the two best numbers in this production was “Dancing Fool” by the Copa Boys. The male dancers at least had great precision and good footwork and their number had an upbeat melody. This was at the beginning of the production but after that everything went down hill. The other highlight was the vaudeville number in the second act sung by Sam, called “Who Am I Kidding?”. It is a cute little song and it got a great hand from the audience.

I have talked about Darcie Roberts and her ear-splitting talking voice. Franc D’Ambrosio, who was such a great Phantom, was completely lost here in Manilow’s songs. When they played the dream scenes Franc had the worst Brooklyn accent I have ever heard. He even talked out of the right side of his mouth. He really tried to sing these forgettable songs but it just did not work. These songs are meant for Manilow, not for an operatic voice like Franc's. In fact, D’Ambrosio seemed disconnected from the whole production. There was no spark between Darcie and Franc. The only time Franc shone was in the reprise of “Sweet Heaven”.

Probably the best performance was given by Philip Hernandez. At least he makes a darn good villain. He did have great moves in the Bolero number and he has an excellent voice to match.

Sam was played by Dale Radunz who gave a fairly good performance. He was grouchy but lovable and he sported the weirdest rug on his head. He looked like Rip Taylor in an Eva Gabor the wig.

Throughout the production the audience gave polite applause to most of the numbers. At the end of the production a couple of people even gave them an astounding ovation. However, Barry himself came out then and the whole audience rose and clapped loudly. Barry really milked that applause and then he himself went into the song Copacabana, while the cast did the tango or whatever. Barry went off stage and the cast continued to dance and sing. At least the audience left the theater on a high.

The musical is currently at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.
It runs through January 28th.
Tickets are $40 to $60.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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