A Tourism Plot

by Don Nelsen

FIVE AFTER EIGHT. Musical by Michael Bitterman. Book by Richard Morton. Sally Funk, James Handakas, Dena Olstad, Arthur Sorenson, Barbara Walker. Musical Direction, Ron Williams. Set by Frank Kelly, Lights by Paul Lindsay Butler, costumes by Dolores Gamba. Directed and choreographed by Todd Pearthree at the Cubiculo Theater, 414 W. 51st St.

So you think those wackos who walk the New York streets talking to themselves or shouting obscenities or playing radios at ear-rending volume are just crazies? Don't be a dope. These characters, are, according to a funny sketch in "Five After Eight", secretly in the employ of the New York tourist authorities, who know a good thing when they see it. Out-of-towners naturally expect New York to be a hotbed of loonies, so the tourism folks are just boosting trade by giving them what they want.

This sketch is called "The National Guard" and its subject matter suggests the originality that Michael Bitterman and Richard Morton have brought to their witty, well-performed little musical tale. "Five" is an affectionate, post-curtain "A Life in the Theater" which traces, the loves, disappointments and triumphs of its five engaging performers after the house lights dim. It is imaginative in several ways, from set designer Frank Kelly's movable feast of mirrors to the use of, in one scene, cigaret lighters for spotlights to director-choreographer Todd Pearthree's judicious employment of the limited space available to him.

The efforts of all these offstage folk would, of course, have been sabotaged if their up-front performers were a handful of clothespins but Sally Funk, Dena Olstad, Barbara Walker, James Handakas and Arthur Sorenson more than match their fine material. At the risk of being branded a sexist, I choose the three women as being particularly captivating, whether it's pert Sally Funk doing a number on "Nothing Can Stand in My Way", Olstad combining humore and a certain pathos in an audition scene or Walker zeroing in as a shy plain jane with a philandering husband. The humor is the more effective because it has enough serious overtones to make it ring with truth. And the four-man band led by Ron Williams fits in snugly with the movement on stage.

There are a couple of clunkers (what musical is without them?) The dialogue and the acting in "A Quartet With a Smile" is corny and cutesy but once the company gets to the song, the musical zips back on the track. The next-to-last tune is a vibrant rouser called "New York Finale", which slyly parodies Gershwin and Sondheim among other composers. A portion of the lyric asks: "How can you write a song about Manhattan when they've all been written before?" Bitterman and Morton can and have - and it's good.

Michael Bitterman's Midnight Modulation Studios