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Who's the Manilow?

The classic camp tune "Copacabana" gives rise to a less-than-satisfying musical


There is a generation that grew up being schlepped to Hebrew school in carpools driven by middle-aged housewives in wood-paneled station wagons. The music of choice in the tape deck was typically Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand and the king of bathhouse soul, Barry Manilow.

So, if you were sufficiently young and impressionable, you might find yourself singing along to and developing an appreciation for Barry's oeuvre, with such nuggets as "I Write the Songs," "Ready to Take a Chance Again" and "Looks Like We Made It." Purely sentimental stuff. Cheesy, maybe, though hardly as cheesy as baritone Narcissus Neil Diamond. And yet, somehow, when Barry belted it out, you could buy it.

There was no question at all about "Copacabana." Barry was born to write this song, a painting done in broad strokes of glamour, lust, revenge and, of course, that "passion" that was "always in fashion." From the opening burst of "Her name was Lola," you were hooked.

Sixteen years later, Barry and two writing partners accepted an offer to turn his magnum opus into a full-scale musical. (Gulp.) We can report that with plenty of sequins and feathers in song-and-dance numbers meant to emulate American and Cuban nightclubs of the 1940s, along with striking neon scenery and dramatic lighting, Copacabana is a pretty spectacle. Also, you will no doubt see able dancers and hear talented singers.

Yet the rest of the show destroys the charm of the original song. Yes, there are the young lovers, Lola the showgirl and Tony the bartender, and there is the dastardly Rico to complete the triangle. Near the end, there is the "But just who shot who?" gunshot. In between, the music is synthesized keyboard pablum. The sketchy plot, which a pop song can pull off, is hardly fleshed out -- the love story seems forced.

At the end of the musical, mercifully, finally, the cast does the song from whence this debacle came -- and there's a glimpse of what might have been.