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CLO works overtime to make 'Copacabana' entertain

| Wednesday, July 22, 2009

As long as you don't take it too seriously, "Barry Manilow's Copacabana" is an entertaining night at the theater.

And the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production that plays through Aug. 2 at the Benedum Center, Downtown, works overtime to see that audiences have a really good time.

Based on Manilow's enduring and insistent song, the musical had its debut in its current form nine years ago at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera at the start of a 30-city North American tour.

Equal parts show business fairy tale and romance novel adventure, it's Manilow's tribute to glitzy movie musicals of the 1940s that were saturated with Technicolor settings and costumes and extravagant song-and-dance numbers but not strong on plot or character development.

Manilow, who wrote the musical's book along with Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman frames the story with a premise about a songwriter trying to write a hit song. Though the eventual happy ending is never in doubt, he builds in a few twists and surprises that should please those who already know the story.

You can't help but love the colorful Latin rhythms of the splashy "Welcome to Havana" number or the Copacabana Zodiac extravaganza that inexplicably features only eight of the 12 signs.

If like most of us the original song is already stuck in your head, you know the story. An innocent but talented girl named Lola arrives in Manhattan with dreams of stardom.

She gets a chorus girl job at the nightclub that's the hottest spot north of Havana and falls in love with Tony, a young, attractive dancer and occasional bartender who is also an aspiring songwriter. Then she attracts the attention of a diamond-wearing gangster named Rico who spirits her off to Havana for all the wrong reasons.

In addition to being a very good dancer Tony Yazbeck makes an attractive and appealing love interest as Tony. Chandra L. Schwartz's hopelessly naive but determined Lola will please most viewers. She has a pleasant voice and is delightfully and comically awkward as she vamps her way through her audition song "Man Wanted".

Robert Cuccioli plays the gangster Rico like a twisted, brilliant, but dangerously insane Bond movie villain. There's a strong cast of secondary characters headed by Sally Wilfert as the wisecracking former Copa showgirl whose tough exterior harbors a marshmallow heart.

Stephen Berger plays the brusque but reluctantly heroic Sam Silver and Elise Santora appears as Conchita, Rico's aging girlfriend. Tim Hartman turns small parts as a Copacabana headwaiter, an Irish policeman and the song promoter Mr. Brill into distinct cameos.

Don't go looking for abundant sub-text and deep meaning. For the most part this is a tale as deliciously weightless as feathers on the show girls' costumes, a pleasant, song-filled diversion for a summer's evening.

It falters only when it turns uncharacteristically sincere or realistic or in the overwrought fantasy ballet "This Can't Be Real."

The large ensemble of male and female dancers impressively tap and rhumba through extravagantly costumed numbers and engage in campy and hilarious bits such as the Copa Girls' devilishly twirling their tails in the "I Gotta Be Bad" cabaret number or impersonating female pirates in "El Bravo."

Director Charles Repole and choreographer John Macinnis keep the pace fast, lively and energetic and bring the entire show to a successful and spirited conclusion in just under two hours.

Additional Information:

'Barry Manilow's Copacabana'

• Produced by: Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera

• When: Continues through Aug. 2 at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 1 p.m. Thursday (July 23)

• Admission: $18.50-$70.50

• Where: Benedum Center, Seventh Street at Penn Avenue, Downtown.

• Details: 412-456-6666 or pittsburghclo.org .

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