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Barbara's Blue Kitchen

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

This is the way the Lamb's ends, not with a bang but a whimper. The final show to play in the venerable 44th Street Lamb's Theatre does not provide the rousing send-off the space should receive. That's not to say that Barbara's Blue Kitchen - which just opened there - doesn't have some things to recommend it. But too much of this mildly pleasant musical demonstrates why Off-Broadway is on rapidly malfunctioning life support.

Written by and starring Lori Fischer, this is a slice of pecan-pie life in Watertown, Tennessee, that follows the proprietress of the titular diner, Barbara Jean, through the rigors of an ordinary day. She must deal with a new (and clumsy) employee, rowdy and depressed customers, a philandering boyfriend, and her pokey cousin of a chef in the kitchen. In the traditional manner, Fischer plays Barbara and all the diner's visitors, to not only display her versatility as an actress and singer, but also to paint a loving portrait of small-town camaraderie taking stand against that unfriendly outside world.

Unfortunately, while Fischer finds an accommodating Southern grace in Barbara, it quickly becomes evident that she lacks the precisely honed interpretive and mimicry capabilities of more gifted solo artists. While Fischer makes a clever game out of moving between the characters (Barbara bends down behind the counter, for example, and emerges as her waitress, Jeanette), and while she has a delightful roster of voices at her disposal, she never vanishes into any of her characters. Props, costume pieces, and those funny voices do delineate the differences between Barbara's harsh brother, his rambunctious kids, her Italian singer-hairdresser lothario, a visiting nurse, and the others, but feel like parlor impressions when compared to the intricately detailed portrayals Fischer's compatriots Sarah Jones (Bridge & Tunnel) and Nilaja Sun (No Child) specialize in.

That there's hardly a plot doesn't help; "Will Barbara's boyfriend go to the Bahamas with another woman?" and "Will Barbara's brother get his impounded dog back?" aren't exactly riveting questions on which to build a story. (One question I'd like to ask: "Why is a woman's husband's death by botulism supposed to be funny?") Nor does Martha Banta's lumbering direction camouflage the writing's inability to rise above the grinning, gum-smacking geniality so commonly associated with stories taking place in The South.

True, Fischer's got a strong singing voice and a way with songs that makes otherwise standard country-take-off ballads surprisingly heartfelt. But the way she's worked most of these numbers into the show - the diner's radio is always turned to WATR, where Dickie Brian Hall (Scott Wakefield, also the show's guitar accompanist) sings his original compositions for Watertown listeners - has limited novelty value. Yes, there's some humor to be found in ditties with names like "I Want My Kidney Back" (about a relationship gone really, really wrong), or in Dickie's musical description of Barbara's "corn-puddin' smile" and "mashed-potato gravy laugh." But when the characters start singing their inner feelings, it's all the harder to take them and their troubles seriously. Fischer and Wakefield, while amiable and energetic, just aren't charismatic or creative enough performers to compensate. In a show this reliant on its performers, good enough just ain't good enough.

The most defined character, then, becomes the diner itself. Smartly designed and lit by Bobby Bradley, its combination of homeyness and efficiency suggest a strangely enchanted place, where words like "meat loaf special" and "banana pudding" have the mystical allure of magic words that instantly grant comfort to the speaker. The restaurant itself is rather like its theater in that regard: Old-fashioned, sure, but a uniquely special locale where anything can happen. Sadly, with Barbara's Blue Kitchen, just anything has - and for the last time at the Lamb's.

Barbara's Blue Kitchen
Through September 30
Lambs Theatre, 130 West 44th Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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