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'Stardust' swan song

Our Grinch bids a non-fond farewell

Harlequin does the World War II-era musical thing ... again.

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Stardust Serenade is the 17th in Harlequin's series of annual World War II-era musical revues, and by all accounts, it's intended to be the last. This reprise of the 2002 version uses the departure of a flyboy (Ryan Holmberg, charming as ever) as an excuse to perform 22 numbers from the period. The going-away party inspires a numbing parade of impersonations, so we're treated to Alicia Mendez warbling "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in blue-checked gingham and Alison Monda in paleface purring "Stormy Weather" as Lena Horne.

We'll start with the positives. It's a Harlequin show, so it's handsomely produced. It's also well researched, so if you were a youngster in 1941 you'll feel an intoxicating sense of déjà vu. You'll also feel a barrage of aches and pains, because you're pushing 80. The best thing Stardust Serenade has going for it, milieu aside, is Christian Doyle's almost entirely wordless performance as Charlie let's-just-go-ahead-and-say-it Chaplin. I've seen full-time Little Tramp impersonators on Hollywood Boulevard and at Universal Studios, and Doyle holds his own with any of them. It's a truly outstanding impression, maintained through a duel of sword and cane and an unexpectedly moving ASL rendition of "Stardust."

Speaking of research, director Linda Whitney found an incredible wartime story about, of all things, the board game Monopoly for her program annotations. The tale "has nothing to do with the plot of Stardust," she admits, but it's terrific all the same, and I'd never heard it before. Of course, there's much in Stardust I'd never heard of before; thus, we segue to the negatives.

Where to begin? Whitney once told me the Stardust jukebox musicals were "shows critics love to hate," but speaking for myself, I don't love to hate anything. Despite considerable talent and visible effort, however, Serenade worked for me only marginally better than last year's installment. You could say I don't connect to the period, but a.) the vast majority of people who do went to bed at 8 p.m., and b.) a revue set in any period needs its elements to mesh and succeed. Whitney's a wonderful writer, but not of jokes. Our audience smiled at long stand-up sequences without so much as tittering. It wasn't just me.

The band is solid, but feels underused for most of the show. That's largely because of a subplot (elevated to the main plot) involving a grouchy taxman, played naturalistically by Scott C. Brown. He's here to shut down the Stardust Lounge for back taxes, except, of course, he won't, because Louie had a - wait, who the hell is Louie? Several times, a mere passing reference in Act I leads to what is expected to be a big emotional payoff. It doesn't work, so ostensibly happy endings land with a meh. Even more damaging, the tax plot squeezes almost all music out of the first half hour of the show. It's nothing against the comic timing of Doyle and Brown, but the show only lurches to life when someone dances. That's to the credit of choreographer Megan Tyrell, who does a lovely Mae West as well.

Some impressions work better than others. Mendez's Judy Garland has Dorothy's wide eyes, none of her tics. The Duke isn't in Scott Brown's enormous skill set; and though Monda's Dietrich is dead-on, the low accent stifles her bold singing voice.

Is it Christmasy? Not really. There are only two Yuletide numbers, squeezed into the mid-second act.

Bottom line, I look forward to Harlequin's replacement for the Stardust series far more than I would crave a new installment.

Stardust Serenade

Through Dec. 31, Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m., $38
Harlequin Productions, 202 4th Ave. E., Olympia

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