When it's good, "A Brief History of White Music" is perfectly enjoyable escapist theater.
When it's bad, this festival of Top 40 nostalgia sounds more like the soundtrack to Casey Kasem's nightmares.
Fortunately, the sheer profusion of classic numbers in the slapdash revue means that MusicalFare Theatre's production has ample opportunity to experiment. With an alternately lighthearted and sappy approach, director and choreographer Carlos Jones, music director Jason Bravo and his spectacular cast of three manage to turn about half the songs into fresh and intriguing interpretations. And that's just enough to make the trip to Amherst worthwhile.
Jones' cast, Rodney Appleby, Kelly Ann Krupski and Victoria Perez, are all fine singers with magnetic personalities to boot. Appleby's vocals, evocative of Lou Rawls, shine brightly on songs like "Walk Like a Man" and "Do Wah Diddy," with Krupski's humor and Perez's vivacity blending together into a unique sort of harmony.
The show is best when it's poking fun at the more ridiculous songs in the revue. The uncontested highlight comes during Krupski's rendition of "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," during which she takes on the persona of a slightly drunk and altogether frazzled Carmen Miranda, complete with a wobbly fruit basket that just won't seem to stay on her head. When the band speeds up beyond her abilities, Krupski stops them, and, arms akimbo, says, "In case you haven't noticed, I've been having a little trouble with the hat."
Similarly campy bits include a rendition of "Downtown," in which Perez and Krupski pull increasingly risque items (whips, handcuffs, power tools) from a shopping bag, and an absurdly operatic version of "Who Put the Bomp" that opened the show.
The show suffers when it takes itself too seriously, which it does too often. "I Got You Babe" is for some reason played straight, which even Cher and Sonny Bono didn't do, and strangely lachrymose arrangements of "Son of a Preacher Man" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" bog down a show that really can't afford such drawbacks. The overarching musical trick here seems to have been to slow down songs that are traditionally up-tempo and accelerate what's normally largo -- and that effect wears off pretty quickly.
In between, however, there are some nicely nuanced versions of truly worthy classics that are neither campy nor too madly retooled. The best of those featured Perez on a pair of Aretha Franklin-style gospel performances of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Jailhouse Rock." There's also a seriously rock-infused "These Boots are made for Walkin'," and serviceable attempts at Beatles hits "She Loves Me," "We Can Work it Out" and John Lennon's "Imagine," which closes out the show.
No matter the drawbacks of the arrangements, these three voices are superbly dynamic, imbued with the kind of subtlety plenty of straight-up musicals with bigger casts don't have a chance to showcase. Appleby is just as good when he whisper-sings as when he belts out a line, and his company onstage is not far behind. If there's anything to be said for contrived musical revues -- of which this is certainly one -- it's that they allow small casts an impressive degree of flexibility that can be fascinating to watch.
And while that's often true in this show, it's not nearly consistent enough.
WHAT: "A Brief History of White Music"
2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
WHEN: Through Dec. 9
WHERE: MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst
TICKETS: $30 to $34
INFO: 839-8540 or www.musicalfare.com