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Despite a passe premise, Personals classifies as a success

I waited to see Personals until a couple of weeks before it closed, and ended up wishing I'd gone sooner. I'd grown weary of the standard fare presented by Theater League, a company that each month dusts off another musty musical (this season alone it's done Hello, Dolly!, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Sound of Music) and whose occasional attempts at more contemporary fare have resulted in failed "comedies" like last season's Shear Madness. But thanks to a talented cast and inventive direction, this production of Personals, a cynical songfest about looking for love, provides a fresh approach to a pretty tired topic.

Finding romance in the personal ads is a theme as faddish as a fondue party. But Personals--written by the creators of Friends and featuring songs by, among others, Disney mainstay Alan Menken--was originally staged off-Broadway about 10 years ago, when the classifieds craze was more newsworthy. In this production, timeless song-and-dance routines and a lot of recently reworked material make the show seem more contemporary, and director Bob Sorenson's often over-the-top staging provides sufficient distraction from its formerly trendy topic.

If a talent for song and dance were all it took to score, none of the cast here would have trouble finding a date. The men--Robert Harper, Beau Heckman and Todd Yard--are nearly perfect as bland Everymen on the prowl. It's a tough job to find men who can sing and dance this well and still convince us that they want to marry women, but Sorenson (a fine comic actor who might have played any of these three roles to perfection) has succeeded. Harper is especially proficient in numbers that require him to butch it up while performing a soft shoe or singing a silly love song, and Heckman's nerdy loser sparks a couple of generic Marx Brothers routines. The trio's bits of between-song banter are familiar and sitcomish, but Sorenson whips them into vampy vaudeville spots that are surprisingly funny.

The women come off even better. Dana Pauley's mournful "Imagine My Surprise" would be the showstopper here if it weren't for Kim Haveman's bawdy burlesque on "The Guy I Love," a formulaic number about a woman who attempts to remake each of her lovers. That Haveman isn't upstaged by her partner--a life-size, dancing Mr. Potato Head whom she deconstructs before our eyes--is testimony to her comic talents. The night I saw Personals, understudy Amy Rogers performed with a confidence that belied her stand-in status.

New material from writers Marta Kaufman, Seth Friedman and David Crane (who received an Outer Critics Circle Award for their work on this show) provides some witty, cynical situations between songs: In one sketch, a man attempts to learn romance skills from a set of how-to tapes, and later meets a woman who's been tutored by the same method; in another, a typesetter who places other people's romance ads explains how he and his wife met their new lover, a dwarf.

The songs that follow each of these bits are equally sarcastic. The show opens with "Nothing to Do With Love," about why people really look for life partners (because they're horny and lonely); and Act One closes with "I'd Rather Dance Alone," about how it's easier to be single than to try to find a worthwhile mate. All this dark commentary is offset by Sorenson's bright direction and musical director Allan Ruch's surprisingly full, prerecorded orchestration. Although Ruch performed the entire score on a synthesizer, none of the songs sounds canned.

JoAnn Yeoman's loose-limbed choreography gives each of the cast a chance to flaunt some impressive wiggles and spins. Yeoman shows off her skill for making simple steps look grand in energetic ensemble spots like "Mama's Boy," staged as a jazzy girl-group number, or the innumerable synchronized line-dances she plies the audience with.

All this polish has led to an extended out-of-town engagement: When Personals closes here at the end of the week, its cast and crew will head off to Los Angeles for an extended run. While L.A. audiences may be less forgiving of the show's unenlightened message (that being single is a universally disagreeable, slightly shabby state), they'll be hard put to overlook the crack cast and bang-up production that Sorenson and crew deliver.

Theater League's production of Personals continues through Sunday, April 26, at the Viad Playhouse on the Park, 1850 North Central.

 
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