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Homegrown Musicals

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

This past weekend, the new musicals which won big at the Tony Awards were The Drowsy Chaperone and Jersey Boys, two shows seen on Southern California stages last year before they went on to Broadway success. So it seems like a good time to talk about homegrown musical theater.

The most innovative new local musical is a piece called Demeter in the City. It's a collaboration between Cornerstone Theater Company, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, and Sarah Ruhl, the playwright whose Pulitzer-finalist, The Clean House, was seen last season at South Coast Rep.

Demeter in the City is a remixed fable about the Greek goddess of agriculture, who is also closely associated with fertility, the seasons, and--befitting a tale told in the Golden State--poppies.

The city in the title is Los Angeles, and Demeter (played with warmth by Bahni Turpin) is a 20 year-old black single mother from San Pedro. Act I shows the goddess losing her daughter to child protective services. Speeches for and against the custody system are kept from becoming agitprop thanks to Ruhl's sparkling whimsy, which keeps the courtroom scenes light--most notably in a hilarious musical number about judicial urination.

Act II focuses on Demeter's lost daughter, Persephone (played by radiant newcomer Sad-- Moore) with appearances by Zeus, a campus Republican, and of course, a Greek Chorus. It's all very cheeky, but Ruhl doesn't just steal characters from the Greeks to show off, she understands the deep, resonant themes of Hellenic myths, and fluidly incorporates them into our milieu. Demeter in the City is odd and at times ungainly--but it's courageous, not just in its humorous treatment of a serious topic, but in its faith in theater as a form. This is the main reason Ruhl's loopy stagecraft works--and why she is one of the few young playwrights whose quirkiness feels authentic rather than affected--her writing always sounds as if it was meant to be performed as live drama, not as an audition or substitute for film and TV gigs.

Ruhl's new play is one of the most interesting local theater events of the year; but sadly, because of the costs of mounting a high-caliber staging of a newly commissioned work by an in-demand playwright, its run at REDCAT is far too short. Perhaps the gods of time can somehow conjure the power to see that Demeter in the City's season stretches a little longer. For local theatergoers to miss this eccentric, indigenous creation would be a real tragedy.

If Ruhl's musical is uniquely Southern Californian, another small show receiving its world premiere here in Los Angeles, titled Internet Dating: The Musical, feels strangely rootless. The musical comedy may be playing at a small space called the art/works theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, but Internet Dating: The Musical has the soul of a big-tent, ready-to-please touring production. It's pure hokum, but it's honest hokum. It delivers exactly what the title pledges: a straightforward musical about the promise and perils of internet dating. The only surprise is that there's not a single Al Gore joke in the entire show.

Ron Weiner's creation is so simple and so conventional that it actually works as a musical. His songs successfully drive the narrative in a way that most big budget musicals these days have forgotten how to do. The song &quotYou; are cute but you don't know how to spell" will never be praised for its Sondheim-ian complexity or grace, but the number earns some genuine laughs and keeps the show moving.

Internet Dating: The Musical is efficiently staged and the acting is energetic and winning--especially Ali Spuck in the lead role of Jenny, the everywoman, and Reggie De Leon who steals scenes as both an office drone and an e-mail. However, the cast is not consistently strong when it comes to singing. This is the production's main drawback, as pedestrian songs--even when amusing--need olympian performances to make old-fashioned musical comedy come alive.

Internet Dating: The Musical runs through July 15 at art/works theater. Demeter in the City continues tonight through Sunday at REDCAT.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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