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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

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Theatrical adaptations of films are not a new phenomenon. In 1966 Neil Simon and Cy Coleman adapted a Fellini film into the hit musical Sweet Charity and in 1973, Steven Sondheim based A Little Night Music on an Ingmar Bergman picture. But these were exceptions--today, almost every Broadway or West End musical is a spin-off of a movie. Last night, the Ahmanson saw the opening of Edward Scissorhands, a stage adaptation of the Tim Burton film.

Matthew Bourne's latest spectacle is neither ballet nor musical. His Edward Scissorhands has no songs, but then it doesn't really have much dance either. It's really a pantomime version of the film, where scenes that vaguely resemble the movie are enacted without much characterization, drama, or magic.

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Burton's 1990 film remains an enchanting fairy tale that boasts a haunting, Gothic-Americana aesthetic and perhaps Danny Elfman's best score. A wonderful opera or ballet could be crafted from its classic tale, yet Bourne performs no alchemy in adapting Edward Scissorhands from film to stage. Anything that is subtle in the movie has simply been made loud and fussy; and anything that Burton exaggerated for effect, now resembles a vulgar pageant.

Bourne's signature style of choreography and stagecraft is quickly devolving into the visual equivalent of karaoke. A play without words, without imagination, and without soul, Edward Scissorhands is unspeakably dull.

Of the many movie musicals opening this season, a fair number are flopping. It was recently announced that the Broadway adaptations of The Wedding Singer and High Fidelity will be closing soon--but this year's oddest screen-to-stage adaptation is a hit: Grey Gardens, the first Broadway musical to be made from a documentary film.

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Grey Gardens is a dysfunctional show, but given its subject matter, how could it be otherwise? In 1975 Albert and David Maysles filmed two of Jackie Kennedy's relatives living in squalor in a crumbling Long Island mansion. Their documentary is a portrait of two unforgettable women: Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Little Edie. Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's musical recreates their intense relationship on stage, yet too often Grey Gardens seems like two fascinating characters in search of a proper vehicle. Doug Wright, who recently won a Pulitzer for his play about a campy, oddball survivor (I Am My Own Wife), was enlisted to fix this, but his work looks like that of an apprentice artist brought into fill in the surroundings after a master has painted the face.

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The master in this analogy is the Maysles and their timeless documentary; the face though belongs to Christine Ebersole, a veteran actress whose performance as both Beales is certain to hang in the galleries of Broadway legend. Ebersole plays mother in Act I and daughter in Act II, and brilliantly connects the themes and emotions of both women that the writers cannot. Like Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! or Yul Brynner as The King of Siam, Ebersole's performance is a career-defining turn and a must-see for any aficionado of musical theater.

The potential for a similar star-making turn exists in Sister Act: The Musical, yet another film adaptation that received its world premiere last month at the Pasadena Playhouse. Sister Act is in many ways the opposite of Grey Gardens: it's a straightforward, well-structured musical in search of a captivating lead character.

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The material calls for a star and instead it has Dawnn Lewis, an adequate but un-charismatic actress who plays the Whoopi Goldberg part. A strong supporting cast buttresses Sister Act: The Musical and Alan Menken's songs--while hardly innovative--are zippy, toe-tapping showtunes that give 1970's disco the same nostalgic gloss that his Little Shop of Horrors score did for 1950's Doo-Wop.

What's really missed in Sister Act is the presence of the late, great Howard Ashman (Menken's collaborator on Little Shop and their memorable, animated musicals, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast). Not only are Glenn Slater's lyrics not particularly witty, they also lack the subtle ability to reveal character through song. One gets the feeling that the central role of Deloris Van Cartier could connect with audiences like Ashman's Audrey, Ariel or Belle, but not without some major reworking.

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As a "work-in-progress," Peter Schneider's production highlights Sister Act's virtues, but it can't hide all its sins. This is a show with clear Broadway aspirations. A few cuts to its two-and-a half hour-plus length will help, yet without a bona-fide musical star in the lead, Sister Act doesn't have a prayer.

Sister Act: The Musical runs through December 23 at the Pasadena Playhouse. Grey Gardens continues its open-ended run on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Matthew Bourne's Edward Scissorhands plays through the end of this month at the Ahmanson Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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