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Before the curtain rose Sunday night on the world premiere of Old Aunt Dinah's Sure Guide to Dreams & Lucky Numbers, Marjorie Samoff, the founder of American Music Theater Festival, spoke about the broad changes technology has brought to the performing arts. Old wisdom meets a new art, is more or less how she put it, and she announced that next year AMTF will stage a mini-series of productions that meld technology and the arts. Samoff wasn't specific about the high-tech effects her music theater pieces might incorporate, but given that the subject matter of Old Aunt Dinah is divination, was I wrong to fantasize that we might see a hologram on stage or some tricky laser-light projections - or at least hear music that was eerily prescient, futuristic? Maybe Samoff shouldn't have said a word, maybe I should have lowered my expectations. Big, fat, green numbers - 3, 5, 21, for instance - are projected on stage during Old Aunt Dinah (words and music by Edward Barnes; choreography and direction by Kimi Okada). A sequence of vibrantly colored auras - computerized light projections - nicely circle the title character (Katherine Peters) during a section called "Visions." Creating attractive but hardly futuristic aural circles is Old Aunt Dinah's music, a wash of synthesized keyboard and other percussion sounds, but predominantly speaking and singing voices that have been recorded on eight separate tracks of tape. These tracks, in varying numbers, are played back as the accompaniment to Peters' onstage singing and declamation, which is amplified, often subtly, by the tiny microphone she wears as a headpiece. Nothing special there that anyone with a passing acquaintance with MTV or a rock concert wouldn't know. No, the best special effect in this production is human - the singing actress who carries Dinah and the one-woman curtain- raiser, The Bones of Love, also created by Barnes and staged by Okada. Katherine Peters has presence and personality - and a vibrant, flexible voice that could serve a song recital or a show on Broadway. Actually, Old Aunt Dinah is Broadway - a Broadway-style revue, tricked up with a minimal stage set (a painted ramp and wall unit with shuttered windows) that looks vaguely futuristic. Nine songs, the last a reprise of the first, form as many little scenes, played out mostly by Peters, who occasionally has the help of singer/dancers Sharon Marie Desmarais and Meredith Magoon. "Lucky Numbers," the show's opening and closing song, is the silliest, merely a jumpy recital of random digits like 3, 5, 21 that provide an excuse to project the big fat green numbers mentioned earlier. Suavely set but not terribly memorable are "Questions Asked" and "Love Potion," covering the obvious issues of a fortune-teller's trade. But finally, with "Love Charm" - a waltzing aria whose musical effect is nearly as refined and moving as one of Sondheim's from A Little Night Music - Barnes' music makes you want to pay attention. Then the composer nicely breaks up the mood with "The Significance of Moles on the Body," a quirky send-up of the tango, whose lines are fun and which was lithely sung and danced out by the trio. Silly ecstasies define the number "Visions," in which Dinah simulates a trance - backed by John Williams-type blasts of brass and whirrings worthy of a Star Wars takeoff. Barnes' music and lyrics can be admired for their simplicity, however, and he has a commendable sense of theatrical timing - which Peters conveyed unerringly. But if you're looking for a stage portrayal of the weirdly wonderful sham world of a fortunte-teller, Gian-Carlo Menotti's one-acter The Medium is more compelling and adventurous; it was written in 1946. * Like a tale from The Green Fairy Book acted out for grown-up children is The Bones of Love, the curtain-raiser of the evening. Peters performed it earnestly, to the accompaniment of two keyboard synthesizers and a drummer, all on stage. The story is an Eskimo tale, meant as a parable for the stages of love. A young woman is pushed over a cliff by her angry father, her body eaten by fish, her bones caught in a fisherman's net. The fisherman, at first horrified by his catch, reassembles the woman's skeleton, dances with it and falls in love. While he sleeps, she steals his heart, grows back her flesh, gives back his heart, and falls in love. The two kayak off into the sunset. Peters narrates, sings, acts all the parts - from shrieking skeleton to rowing fisherman - with aplomb, but also with a gravity that seemed too large for this material. From the electric keyboards and acoustic drums are heard bangs, tinkles and ostinato chords - sounds more conventional than the instruments suggest, and than the parable's mysteries warrant. THE BONES OF LOVE; OLD AUNT DINAH'S SURE GUIDE TO DREAMS & LUCKY NUMBERS Music and words by Edward Barnes; directed by Kimi Okada; settings by Neil Patel; costumes by Marla Jurglanis; lighting by Michael Gilliam. Sound design by Darron L. West; Presented by the American Music Theater Festival. The cast: Katherine Peters with Sharon Marie Desmarais and Meredith Magoon; Edward Barnes and Andrea Clearfield, keyboards; John Fitzgerald, percussion. Playing at: Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, through April 23. Tickets are $17-$28. Information: 215-893-1145.

By Lesley Valdes, INQUIRER MUSIC CRITIC, Philadelphia Inquirer


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