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Sweetmeats on the stage


Gregg Coffin's previous, much-admired musical developed at Geva was Convenience, a funny, touching drama with some memorable truths to tell. His new musical, Five-Course Love --- again a compositional tour-de-force of clever writing and appealing music entirely created by Coffin --- is much lighter fare but even more entertaining --- and showy. Coffin creates book, music, and lyrics to show us five takes on love in five differing styles.

            It's a delicious confection. Posing as a five-course meal, it all tastes like dessert. And from the perspective of my sweet tooth, that's a compliment.

            Here's the menu. The real appetizer is in Matt's Car, which presents a solo by a lonesome hill-William named Matt. But the appetizer course is Dean's Old-Fashioned All-American Down-Home Bar-B-Que Texas Eats, which is supposed to be honky-tonk but sounds like shit-kickin' to me. The soup course, Trattoria Pericolo, is Italianate, ranging from near-Neopolitan to openly operatic. Salad course is, of all things, German: Der Schlupfwinkel Speiseplatz. The katzenjammer boys get out of hand, and I'd pun on the kunst, but this is a family newspaper.

            Entree course is a show-stopping conga, Los Hermanos Cantores, which I can't wait to describe below. And the dessert course is, to end the night, The Star-Lite Diner. Here too, there's some lovable cheating, because the real final treat follows it: Kitty's Bus Stop/Matt's Car ties the repast together with the right sweet touch.

            Sound tasty? These food stops are peopled with 15 memorable characters that come in dream roles for three actors. Heather Ayers gets to play sexpot, maiden fair, predatory femme fatale, and lovesick loser, looking good even when looking funny, and singing beautifully in more different ways than you'd expect. John Bolton plays everything from cute hick to Italian Goodfella to Hispanic hunk and dumb jock.

            And Jeff Gurner covers the same ethnic spectrum while also shifting from comic sidekick to competing Latin Lover to kindly oldguy, called, of course, Pops. Both men get a terrific vocal workout in varying modes and ranges. Five-Course Love is nothing if not a showcase, and these three more than live up to the challenge.

            Emma Griffin's savvy direction gets constant quirky comedy from the singers' movement, use of props, and gags that always surprise, yet seem inevitably right for the music and the moment.

            Coffin doesn't so much make fun of stereotypes as show them off with affection. At Dean's homey place, Coffin has Dean (Gurner) set up Matt (Bolton) with Barbie (Ayers in sex-doll mode), only to have Barbie sing "I Loved You When I Thought Your Name Was Ken." In the dangerous Trattoria the three conspiratorially sing "If Nicky Knew," then tremble to note that gangster "Nicky Knows."

            G. W. Mercier's consistently arresting designs reach true comic heights in the two Mexican brothers' leather chests and glittering black patent leather pompadours and sideburns, to say nothing of their glamorous colored-striped feather sleeves. But then, they are competing for the love of Rosalinda, who is dazzling in a raspberry swirl hairdo that looks like whipped frozen custard. The show is full of sight gags, many of which tantalizingly reflect its food motif.

            And it's only right that the lovesick bobbysoxer from the dessert and the gawky lonesome driver from the appetizer should work out some kind of tasty hitch at the end, served up like an after-dinner mint.

            It's hard to see the boundaries between Griffin's direction and Terry Berliner's perfectly attuned, amusing choreography. David Labman conducts a first rate band --- Linda Boianova, Benjamin James Gateno, and Kristen Shiner McGuire --- who change hats throughout the Five Courses. Mr. Coffin continues to look good wearing a number of hats at once.

Five-Course Love,by Gregg Coffin, directed by Emma Griffin, plays at The Nextstage at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 9:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through July 11. $12.50 to $25. 232-4382,