You have to practically leave town to find anything resembling summer stock this season. Way out west, just this side of Sun City, tiny Theater Works has wedged a couple of months' worth of live entertainment onto its cozy stage. Among the usual retreads is a surprisingly sturdy production of Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know, a popular East Coast gem that I expected to see optioned by a larger company next year.
A Fodor's guide of the same name inspired this original revue, which was an off-Broadway hit two seasons ago starring Phoenix fave Kathy Fitzgerald. The fast-paced and mostly funny material, handled here by director Cindy Wynn, builds a whirlwind tour out of the world's oldest travel clichés. The usual baloney about lost luggage and Montezuma's Revenge have been revisited as clever comic bits and catchy comedy songs. We're stopped at customs, shipped out on a cruise line and made to hear a twangy ode to a bus line, and most of it's pretty painless.
Because the musical's principal creators are professional song-and-sketch writers whose work includes specialty material for the old Carol Burnett Show, the invigorating results are hardly a surprise. But the happiness at hand is less a tribute to the quality of the material than to the winning way in which it's unfurled by a charming cast.
Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know
Theater Works, 9850 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria
Continues through Sunday, June 25. Call 623-815-7930.
Johanna Carlisle is certainly some kind of discovery. A cross between Kaye Ballard and Baby Snooks, her comic alto has the crazed sound of a rebel yell. When she's really flying, Carlisle can sell a song and a string of wisecracks all at once. In "My Guide," she's a frumpy housewife who ends up bumping and grinding in a tiny bathing dress; in "Star Search," she's a creepy kid hawking a shipboard talent show. She croons and twirls her way through these and several other numbers, and if her co-stars ever appeared alongside her, I couldn't tell you -- I was captivated by her performance.
Sarah Wolter is also a find; she's a gifted young performer lacking only a big enough stage for her talents. She tosses her long legs about and puckers her lips so wickedly she could probably make the National Anthem sound lewd. Her sultry reading of "French Song" is hilarious, and a good part of her glamorous Noel Coward spoof was lost behind audience howls of glee.
Most of the suave male roles were handled by tenor Dion Johnson, whose animated face and witty reading allowed him to play comic bits, as well. And I enjoyed Clayton Peterson's performance in spite of myself; his flat-footed dancing and understated, nearly slothful style (imagine Rodney Dangerfield as a song-and-dance man) were so utterly out of synch with the rest of the cast that he was often funny just standing there, waiting for his next punch line.
The material is often naughty, yet wholesome enough to play Peoria: The Noel Coward bit finds its humor in anal sex jokes, while the talent show routine makes reference to Shirley Temple and old Fox musicals. Some of the sketches are predictable, and the recurring bit about the automated telephone clerk has a beard a mile long.
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A couple of numbers in the second act are downright annoying (the obligatory audience participation number "Hot Lava" and a messy coda in which travel agents are cast as Hollywood sharks). In fact, most of the second act material falls short. Loosely structured as an old Hope/Crosby "Road" movie (with inexplicable and unfunny "cameos" by Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Dean Martin), none of it matches the class and vigor of what came before intermission.
Although she might direct her cast to be quieter offstage (the sounds of tap cleats and wrenching Velcro are plainly audible from the wings), Cindy Wynn (whose name is spelled several different ways in the program) has directed Secrets in an appropriately dizzy style. Darcy Rould's major choreographic contribution is her ability to make a group of non-dancers look like skillful hoofers. Her crazy-quilt mixture of soft-shoe, tap and modern jazz is an acrobatic approximation of vintage Broadway dancing without the conviction. And Gregory Jaye's imaginative set design allows players to pop out of unexpected places and doubles as a handsome bandstand for a trio of well-tuned musicians who don funny hats between songs.
Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know is the sort of sophisticated cabaret-style entertainment for which New York was once famous. Though I left wondering what the show would have been like if the second half had kept pace with the first, the overall result buzzes like Sky Harbor on Christmas Eve. In a town where summer stock is a mere mirage, this amusing musical provides more than adequate entertainment.