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More Sugar Needed

Just Desserts At the Boston Shakespeare Theatre Thru March 27

By Kathleen I. Kouril

ELAINE KOURY KNOWS a lot about theater fundraising and promotion. She could show the American Repertory Theater's Robert Brustein a thing or two. However, a list of patrons that reads like a who's who of the Boston establishment and slick promotional materials do not a professional production make. Not to mention the slick, professional ticket prices.

Koury is the founder and director of the Boston Youth Theatre, a multi-racial company of young Boston-area actors, which in the course of its seven year existence has produced an admirable series of plays and musicals. The Youth Theatre hit big twice with I Am Boston during the city's 350th Jubilee, and Z Appenin, a loose adaptation of the Peter Pan story set in Boston's Combat Zone and featuring dancing cockroaches among the other denizens of that area. Like those works, Just Desserts is an original musical, conceived, written and directed by Koury. Desserts is Koury's baby--unfortunately it needs a bit more mothering.

The show is a string of contemporary vignettes, each one based on one of Aesop's fables. Some of the scenes, like "Tortoise and Hare," are rousing song and dance routines: all feature sharp, wise-cracking humor. Yet, although most of the scenes are winning in themselves, the show overall lacks direction and flow; it's missing a theme and a pattern. The numbers come in haphazard arrangement, seemingly without design, each revealing a neat moral cliche that could be more efficiently placed in a greeting card.

The problem does not, however, lie with the young cast, which is superb. When the lights come up on Kevin-Anthony Close and Monica Dorten, perched on stools in one corner of a vast blue stage that projects out into the audience like a table, the two actors seem like lambs ready to be sacrificed. But they pull it off. Clad in overstaffed purple tunics, cousins to the Fruit of the Loom grapes, they whisper hilarious jibberish to each other at the approach of a hungry fox, then break out into a scornful jive patois when the fox can't leap far enough to pluck them from their vise. Close and Dotten fill up the stage with their voices, their pantomimes and their humor.

Close and Dotten are two of the standouts in this production. Close, with a voice like the young Stevie wonder, knocks the audience out with his bluesy numbers as Jupiter, and again as the Sun, in an amusing duet in which he and the North Wind (Paul Stickney) compete to see who can remove a young man's coat the fastest.

The choreography is hot, dazzling stuff. Arthur Williams III and Pay Lynn Boyce, who also choreographed the show, are an unbeatable dance team, leading the rest of the cast through some lightening fast gymnastics, and charming the audience as decadent playboy bunny types in "Tortoise and Hare." Boyce has crafted some impressive dance routines, which make the most of the plodding to lackluster music. The score, written by Koury with the help of Steve Olenick and Michael Cowan, needs to be tightened and spiced up. It lacks imagination.

Also lacking imagination are Irene Costello and Jeff Schantz's costumes, which, while featuring yards of lame and hundreds of sequins, are nevertheless ho-hum, large scale versions of the homemade costumes mom used to fashion for the kingergarten pageant. Notable exceptions, however, are the strangely abstract and witty outfits created for the Sun and the North Wind. In contrast to the generally amsicurish look of the costumes, Len Schnabel's set and lighting design is spare, elegant and very effective.

As is Just Desserts--sporadically, that is. A brilliantly funny sketch like the one featuring Pilar Pittas as a "Valley Girl" crab will often be followed by an awkward scene that just doesn't work. Just Desserts is not a play, but rather a string of scenes of unequal strength. Like a stand of beads, this string occasionally breaks and director Koury needs to do some re-cringing before her show will be the little gem it could be.

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