Play It Again ... and Again 

A hit and a miss: Casablanca spinoffs spin off in different directions.

There's something about Casablanca that makes everyone want to take a poke at it. Everyone from the Marx Brothers to Bugs Bunny has parodied it. Even Woody Allen got into the act with Play It Again, Sam, now playing at Walnut Creek's Dean Lesher Center, in which typical Allen nebbish Allan is haunted by Bogart giving him hard-boiled dating advice. It's basically just an angsty monologue, occasionally interrupted by fantasy visitations, bad dates, and a convenient affair even more conveniently resolved. The slight endeavor is far from Allen's best work, but the Act Now! production makes it feel even thinner.

Jerry Motta's Bogart impression is actually pretty good, and Ben Ortega has a keen sense of comic neurosis as Allan, but he also mimics Allen's delivery. If you've ever wondered what Woody Allen would sound like with a strong Mexican accent, this is your chance to find out. Terry Darcy D'Emidio has folksy charm as gal pal Linda, although they have zero chemistry together, and John Hale makes a decent workaholic Dick. Six different women float in and out of Allan's life in mercifully brief one-note or half-note cameos. Stephen Murphree's staging is awkwardly paced, so that the only way to tell overwrought daydreams from cornball reality is in the lighting.

At nearby Lafayette's Town Hall, artistic director Kevin T. Morales tears into Casablanca far more effectively in a sequel to his 2004 smash hit Let's Go to the Movies, a musical he wrote in a few days about a director from out of town (like Morales at the time) who has to write a musical in a few days for a small Lafayette theater and winds up writing about a guy who has to write a musical in a few days. What was supposed to be just a revue of cinematic songs became a hilarious exercise in satirical metafiction.

The setup this time is relatively simple. Having become artistic director, Darin has to create a Let's Go sequel to save the struggling theater, and the board insists that he base it on Casablanca. He wants to escape back to New York, never mind that stage manager Missy is pregnant with his child. A budding romance between leads Sterling and Autumn may be nipped if Autumn also decides to try her luck in Manhattan. The Casablanca parallel is clear: It's all about who's getting on that plane in the end.

The show spends too much time rehashing Casablanca at the expense of developing the Let's Go story, but the classic cinema refresher course scenes are the only ones that drag in three hours that otherwise fly by. The first installment was faster-paced, but Let's Go to Casablanca is packed with in-jokes poking fun at the theater and Morales' own track record. Even a running gag about bleeped cussing is a sly comment on Contra Costa values.

Like the first Let's Go, much of the fun lies in what a terrible idea the show is in the first place. Inept floozy Kitty (the sharply comic D'Arcy Erokan) is cast as Renault because there are more actresses than parts, and Sam is replaced with showgirls who fled Paris with Rick. The songs are still from other movies, giving you Rick and Ilsa singing "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" and a table of Nazis singing "99 Luftballons" getting drowned out by "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from Les Miz.

There's little time for introductions, but the cast lets us know all we need in a few deft strokes. Jason Carden's Darin is a heel, but when he starts blubbering at the Aerosmith song from Armageddon, it's priceless. Ryan Meulpolder's Winthrope plays a very gay Major Strasser, and Will Long and Richard Dent IV steal the show as stagehands constantly tussling in knockout fight choreography. Joel Roster's hammy board member Trey isn't as hilariously inept as previous portrayals, but he brings his own brand of winning smarm to the role, constantly showing off his "Townie" acting award and mugging shamelessly as Victor Laszlo.

Leaning heavily on Reality Bites and classic musicals, this Let's Go sometimes feels like an excuse to perform "Seasons of Love" from Rent and Chicago's "Cell Block Tango" (although the context of the latter puts the camp in concentration, where it was never meant to go). Laura Moran does some impressive numbers as relentlessly peppy Joy, as do Meghann May and Sean Robert Griffin as Autumn and Sterling. Griffin makes no attempt to mimic Bogie as Rick, but his upright straight man becomes increasingly funny as Sterling gets ever more sloppily drunk.

Much of the original Casablanca was written on the fly during filming, so even if making it a musical is a terrible idea, combining it with Morales' own hastily assembled instant classic is inspired.


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