Summer of Love

Imagine Cupid as a grown man with a big belly. He smokes fat brown cigars, sports black nylon old-man socks held up by garters, and wears a gold lamé diaper under his dirty white T-shirt. Just like his legendary pretty-boy counterpart, he flits about, stabbing unsuspecting mortals with his arrows of love. But the love this Cupid likes has a lot more to do with black leather and spandex than it does sweetly fluttering hearts. Sound absurd? Welcome to Infernal Bridegroom Productions' seventh installment of the much-beloved Tamalalia series.

The latest version of the annual summer confection -- written, directed and choreographed by Tamarie Cooper (who is also its redheaded star) -- may be the frothiest Tamalalia of them all. The Love Show doesn't have much of a narrative, just goofy high jinks and some rather obvious musings on the nature of romance. Against designer Kirk Markley's terrifically tacky backdrop of blood-red tinsel, Cooper and company strut their stuff for just over an hour of lightweight fun.

After Cooper has introduced her band and cast, she announces that she will be starring in her "very own Harlequin romance," and a Fabio-like lover shows up to sweep her off her feet. But soon enough her deliciously droll sidekick/co-writer Andy Nelson weasels his way into the story to remind her that real love isn't the stuff of storybooks.

Nothing could be truer, and "The Dump Song" establishes just how hysterically horribly real love stories can end. When Cooper gets dumped, she does what any red-blooded American woman would: She gorges on Twinkies while glued to the tube, watching every tearjerker cable has to offer, from Love Story to Jerry Maguire. Of course, Cooper's depressions are slightly more bizarre than most; her subconscious thoughts appear on stage, looking a lot like a group of monkish gnomes.

Nelson shows up just in time to save the day with one of the funniest scenes of the night: the parade of Tamarie's exes, during which Cooper and Nelson narrate her dismal dating history. We get to meet Tortured Intellectual Guy (Paul Locklear), who writes bad poetry and feels woefully misunderstood, and Racist Rockabilly Guy (Patrick Reynolds), who tells Cooper she "sure is pretty" between his bigoted, homophobic comments about the world. But the most bizarre and amusing of all is Stalker Guy, played with gleeful mania by Kyle Sturdivant. His eyes practically spin in his head as he stalks across the stage with a tiny Tamarie doll perched on his shoulder. When he tries to gobble up her head, the audience hoots with laughter.

For all its madcap fun, this is not the most well written of Cooper's series. Gone is the inspired originality of some Tamalalias past (the Mad Cow Ballet, jumping on the bed with the jailbait princes of England, a "Villain Song" that includes Hitler, Pol Pot and members of the Utah Jazz). Instead, Cooper and Nelson have built their script around some fairly standard images: Cooper is a contestant on The Dating Game, she sings a song about girls eager to wed, and yes, a crusty old Cupid leaps in from the wings. These scenes are funny, even if they're more obvious choices than one might expect from IBP and Cooper, who performed Tamalalia 2 on a school bus as it drove around Houston. Even Cooper and her cast don't seem to be having quite as much fun as they have in the past.

But these are minor disappointments that only a critic would quibble about. Even if it's not the most original, the show is still wacky and funny and had the audience giggling all the way out to the bar in the lobby.

Love might stink, as Tamarie Cooper says, but Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, whose collective imaginations created West Side Story, know love can also be grand. Any doubters should see Theater Under the Stars' remake of director/ choreographer Jerome Robbins's critically acclaimed version of the classic tragedy. The musical retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is as potent today as it was when it opened on Broadway in 1957.

Most striking of all is Robbins's gorgeous choreography, re-created for this production by Alan Johnson. Anyone who watches TV has seen Johnson's award-winning West Side Story Gap commercials, but his work is even better in the flesh. When the warring but romantic Hell's Kitchen gangs rumble in dance, they electrify the air. Backing up these leaping gangsters is Bernstein's gorgeous score, which spins wildly between pop and operatic influences. In "The Dance at the Gym," the Jets and the Sharks stage a dance-off to a mambo- influenced tune that is lush, sexual and violent all at once. On the other hand, the lovesick Tony's unforgettable "Maria," in which he sings the praises of the girl he's fallen for, is beautifully operatic.

West Side Story was a young Sondheim's remarkable debut into the American consciousness. His original use of counterpoint to create tension is clear even in this early show, especially in the "Tonight" montage that has the entire cast singing about what they're looking forward to on that magical evening. Tony (Drew Niles) and Maria (Natasha Harper) want each other. Anita (Lynn Sterling) looks forward to a night of hot love. And the Jets and Sharks just want to rumble.

There is something sweetly antiquated about the story. When Riff (Andy Blankenbuehler) and Bernardo (Alexander Quiroga), the gangs' leaders, square off to discuss the terms of their rumble, they talk about rocks and cans instead of handguns. Even switchblades don't seem so bad when held up against today's standards of automatics and Uzis. But this is a highly stylized environment where warlords come at the world in perfectly executed midair pirouettes. Their hands and feet may be flat and mannish as they bound through the streets of Manhattan, but their backs are straight and their chins held high.

TUTS has put together a terrific young cast that brings vitality to the stage. Especially strong and sexy are Blankenbuehler's Riff, Quiroga's Bernardo and Sterling's Anita. The familiar Jet songs such as "Cool" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" are reason enough to see the show.

Most lovers of musicals have seen the film version at least once, but video can't capture the fiery power that has been so wonderfully realized in this production.

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Lee Williams