When the songs are over, `Sheboppin'' needs a little action

It looked good on paper: a new musical written, produced, and performed by local talent in a heretofore moribund local theater. It sounded good on paper: a score cribbed from Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Elvis Presley.

It played well on paper, what with the '60s au courant again.

But on stage, ``Sheboppin''' just wasn't good enough. Not good enough to cut the mustard or a rug. For this ``new '60's musical'' plays as a two-hour spin of Top 40 Hits of the '60s. And that's about it.

Sure, the songs - ``One Fine Day,'' ``Twist and Shout,'' ``Great Balls of Fire,'' and 18 other golden oldies - are strung together in some semblance of order, but it's not sufficient to suggest real plot or character. Which is what the songs are being asked to do, since the creators of this musical-cum-sock-hop - Fran Charnas, Michael Oster, and John Welch - haven't come up with real plot or character.

Instead, the trio has rounded up a female quartet who belt and croon the tunes like overeager aspirants on ``Star Search.'' Not only do they need real material, they need a director who knows between nuance and pacing and ram speed. (They also don't need their microphones turned up full blast, at least not in the Wilbur Theatre's new cabaret space.) When the four aren't singing and dancing with the unmodulated verve of talented amateurs, they're screwing up their faces in an attempt to conjure the emotion and character missing from the text.

What text? In today's musical theater you can ``doo wop'' you want, as long as it hangs together dramatically. But in ``Sheboppin''' the songs just bleed into one another with barely a line of script sandwiched between. (Even when there is recognizable dialogue, it's usually a rap-like exchange and often accompanied by a tick-tock beat from the percussionist.) All of which would be OK if the writers had written a bookless musical with sung dialogue. But a string of pop hits does not musical theater make. Most of these tunes, particularly the dreamy ballads in the first act, are the musical equivalent of dramatic asides. When they're over, you need a little action.

What we get instead is a limp story of four beauticians - ``Coiffures by Cookie'' - who are a perfect stereotypical ethnic mix, black, Hispanic, Italian, and blond bombshell. In the course of ``a Saturday in the early 1960s,'' the girls complain about their customers, complain about their boyfriends, and celebrate a birthday, if that's not giving away too much of the plot. By evening's end they've also, somehow, gained a sense of sisterhood. ``Respect,'' that throbbing Otis Redding hit, signals this dramatic denouement. That and an articulated obscenity, which gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening - which tells you something about the other laughs available.

Surely Miss Charnas, who conceived and directed the long-running Boston musical revue ``The All Night Strut!,'' could have come up with something more dramatically engaging and less sexist than this labored vehicle. The four principals, all associated with the Boston Conservatory of Music, are forced to prance and mug in embarrassingly outdated ways. Liz McCartney, as the hefty blonde Arlene, gets the worst of it.

Which isn't to say the four are bereft of talent. They aren't. Rachel Lynn Oliver gets vocally forceful during a number like ``When a Man Loves a Woman,'' although it's not enough to make you forget Joe Cocker's classic, raspy rendition. Natalie Toro, who plays the ponytailed, sweet 16-year-old, possesses the appealing bounciness of actress Holly Hunter. She's also the nimblest dancer of the four. Teresa Capachione, as the dowdy Delores who can also get down, has the evening's most touching moment with her version of ``Break It to Me Gently.''

Still, no matter how winsomely Miss Capachione pleads in ``Break It to Me Gently,'' the hard truth is ``She ain't boppin.'' At the Wilbur Theatre into November.

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