`Brownstone' musical and `Stardust' revue arrive on stage. Manhattan comedy laced with wistfulness

Brownstone Musical by Peter Larson and Josh Rubins (music and lyrics), Mr. Rubins and Andrew Cadiff (book). Directed by Mr. Cadiff. Starring Rex Smith, Liz Callaway, Kimberly Farr, Ben Harney, Ernestine Jackson. Stardust Musical revue with lyrics by Mitchell Parish, music by Hoagy Carmichael, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Leroy Anderson, and others. Conceived and directed by Albert Harris. Five exceptionally attractive and accomplished young stars animate ``Brownstone,'' the cross-sectional, words-and-music view of Manhattan living, at the Roundabout Theatre. The mingled accounts begin with the autumnal arrival of Stuart (Rex Smith), an enterprising plywood salesman from Milwaukee, and end with the autumnal departure a year later of Joan (Kimberly Farr), the smartly tailored attorney with whom he has a brief encounter. Between the movings in and out, the spectator learns almost more than he wants to know about Stuart, Joan, and their fellow tenants. Yet there is a good deal to enjoy along the way.

The cast makes a winning group of these near but not necessarily close neighbors. When Stuart isn't being homesick (instead of home) for Christmas, he is your typical gung-ho New York transplant, and Mr. Smith plays him with a very amusing zest. As upscale Joan, the lovely Miss Farr does the legal profession proud while adding the right romantic touch to ``Brownstone.''

Liz Callaway's bike-riding Claudia is the kind of flip, liberated trendy who can nevertheless lament the fact that she was born too late to dance with Fred Astaire. Such is the occasional wistfulness with which the authors season their prevailingly comic mood. Ben Harney and Ernestine Jackson rise above the difficulties of their roles as Howard and Mary, the black married couple of the enclave. Novelist Howard is trying to finish a thriller which he obviously should not have begun. Mary, a teacher, wants to get on with the serious business of starting a family.

The ``Brownstone'' collaborators manage to touch on many of the most typical features of New York City living - its disappointments as well as its advantages and rewards. Since the Josh Rubins-Andrew Cadiff book is almost negligible, it remains for Peter Larson and Mr. Rubins as composer-lyricists to fill out the picture. This they do in a pleasantly melodious collage of solos, duets, and ensembles. ``The Water Through the Trees,'' movingly sung by Mr. Smith and Ms. Farr, is one of the high points of the score. A certain sameness of musical idiom is happily varied in a couple of boisterous dream-sequence lampoons.

The performance staged by Mr. Cadiff aims to please and achieves its aim. Loren Sherman's livable brownstone interiors, well lighted by Richard Nelson, could have apartment-hungry New Yorkers lining up with applications. The smart costumes are by Ann Emonts. The vocal performance receives strong support from a sidestage orchestra, with Don Jones as musical director and orchestrations by Harold Wheeler.

A flight of stairs leads to delightful flights of American popular song in ``Stardust'' at Theatre Off Park (now located in St. John's Episcopal Church, Greenwich Village). Albert Harris, who conceived and directed the retrospective, has chosen some 30-plus titles from the more than 100 for which Mitchell Parish penned the lyrics. Parish worked with numerous composers, including Hoagy Carmichael, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Leroy Anderson.

Arranged in roughly chronological order, the numbers chosen by Mr. Harris cover the years from 1921 (``Carolina Rolling Stone'') to 1959 (``Ciao, Ciao, Bambino''). In addition to the melody that inspired the title, the selection includes such resonant standards as ``Sophisticated Lady'' (Duke Ellington), ``Moonlight Serenade'' (Glenn Miller), ``Stars Fell on Alabama'' (Frank Perkins), ``Sweet Lorraine'' (Cliff Burwell), and ``Volare'' (Domenico Mondugno).

To Mr. Harris's credit, ``Stardust'' comes across not merely as an affectionate tribute to a prolific Tin Pan Alley wordsmith but as a lively evocation of the styles and creative impulses of an evolving popular music. Even the less memorable numbers on the program make a fresh appeal, both for what they are and for the way they are performed by a first-rate cast. Michele Bautier, Maureen Brennan, Kim Criswell, Andre De Shields, Jason Graae, and Jim Walton prove equal to every demand, from ballads to rhythm numbers and novelty songs. Together with musical director-arranger James Raitt and his musicians, they make ``Stardust'' a salute to the past and a treat for the present.

The simple but effective cabaret-style setting is by David Jenkins, with plenty of follow-spotlighting by Ken Billington, and smart costumes by Mardi Philips. If only the amplification could be muted! ``Stardust'' is scheduled to run through Dec. 7.

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