Below the Belter

It's ironic that Phoenix Theatre is making such a big deal of Crooners--unlike the company's other musical hits Forever Plaid and The Taffetas--being a book musical rather than a revue. Press materials stress that Crooners does more than just string together popular songs of a certain era; it tells a true story, circa 1955, about four young guys determined to become the next jukebox giant. But the company would do better to play up the singing talents of its cast or the attractive collection of nostalgic love songs that fill up the show's nearly two hours, because Crooners' only real flaw is its anemic story.

No matter. The nearly nonexistent plot is wedged between some wonderful musical numbers, and there are so many of them that Crooners may as well be a revue. Thirty-one songs popularized by Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and other '50s pop stylists are performed here by four singers who take turns showing off their vocal prowess with the kind of sentimental ballads that ruled the airwaves before rock 'n' roll. When these guys sang songs like "You're Breaking My Heart" and "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes" with the same drippy sincerity as the men who made them famous, I didn't care that they weren't given much else to do, or that a couple of them were a little long in the tooth to be playing high schoolers. (Rusty Ferracane sings beautifully and does a killer Bing Crosby impersonation, but how many teenagers do you know with receding hairlines?)

Clearly, these guys were cast for their ability to carry a tune. Robert Allocca, a Frankie Avalon look-alike, handles the Dean Martin and Mario Lanza numbers with enormous style. Adam Tyler displays the perfect aw-shucks attitude of a '50s teen, and his rendition of "Prisoner of Love" is a showstopper. And my father, a longtime collector of crooner recordings with whom I attended opening night, thought Bradford York was every bit as good as Eddie Fisher or Vic Damone.

It's good to see Robyn Ferracane back on stage after a yearlong hiatus, although I would have preferred her in a role with more substance--or at least one that let her use her impressive singing voice. In Crooners, she warbles a single verse of "Orange Colored Sky," and seems otherwise ill at ease in her handful of short scenes. That's probably because Ferracane knows her character is little more than a pile of punch lines, or maybe because she's made to wear ugly party dresses better suited to a bobbysoxer than a middle-aged woman.

I'm only guessing at the main character Soph's age, since the unstructured story tells us little about either the characters or the music business they want so much to be a part of. In the end, we know next to nothing about the crooners, and we never find out how Soph, a has-been band singer who gives voice lessons in the basement of a cantor's house, is able to wrangle major recording contracts and guest spots on The Arthur Godfrey Show for her students.

The direction, by Peter J. Loewy (who's worked on Crooners since its inception last year, and who will take the show off-Broadway in 1999), is as flimsy as the plot. The players spend nearly as much time trucking scenery on and off stage as they do singing--a problem that a competent director and set designer could have solved. But about 20 minutes into the show, I stopped caring about the blocking and the characters and focused instead on the music, expertly played by Dan Kurek's splendid four-piece band and flawlessly sung by four young men who, according to the show's press kit, "didn't even know what a crooner was" when they were cast. Crooners works because--when they're not schlepping props or attempting to flesh out their one-dimensional characters--its gifted cast members are singing a lot of great old songs that are the real stars of the show.

Crooners continues through Sunday, January 25, at Phoenix Theatre, 25 East Coronado.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela