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Putting The Sell In Cellulite 

It's ladies' night out at the Capri

It all begins in the heat of a lingerie sale at Bloomingdale's. An Iowa housewife, an African-American business exec, a kook who got lost in the 60s and a soap opera diva who won't admit she's over 40 converge at the undergarments, waging war over a bra. Before you know it, they've made peace and discovered a common affliction. With moves stolen from Diana Ross & the Supremes - and melody on loan from Aretha - they're moaning "Change, change, change... change of life!" in a synchronized lament.

Menopause The Musical is both a showbiz and a marketing phenomenon, with outposts in New York, LA and at least three dozen other locations worldwide — including Vegas, Indianapolis, Israel and Brazil. Shamelessly bearing a superscript "TM" after its title in all its publicity, playbills and merchandise, this Menopause medley of pop parodies is as much a brand as it is a musical. And the current production, at renovated Capri Theatre on Independence Boulevard, is as much a franchise as a Charlotte-based enterprise.

Headquartered in LA and near Orlando, where the show originated, TOC Entertainment guards the consistency of its offshoots with admirable zeal. Patty Bender, the show's choreographer and co-director, has incubated major Menopause birthings in Boston and LA, while co-director Kathryn Conte was the show's original stage manager when it all began in 2001.

Jeanie Linders, who created Menopause The Musical in a flash of inspiration after a career as an ad agency CEO, guards her brainchild against critical scrutiny. Signaling that "The Change" was coming to Charlotte, Linders dispatched a purple publicity parcel to the Loaf. In it was a DVD with snips from the show — and a snipe addressed directly to me and my kind.

"Critics have no clue," Linders offers charmingly. "But the fun thing about it is, when they go to my show and they're surrounded by screaming women, no matter what they say about it in their reviews, they have to finish off by saying, 'But the audience loved it!'"

So I was surprised to find that I really liked the Charlotte edition of Menopause. The show opened back on May 26 — after three full weeks of previews — and the extra polish showed. Many shows in Charlotte, some produced by well-regarded companies, don't rehearse as long as this one matured in previews.

I can't say what the show was like on opening night, but I can compare what I saw last Friday with what I'd seen previously from Liz Hyde and Lynne Morris. Both gave lustier, more self-assured performances than I'd ever seen from them before.

Morris was a gregarious hoot all evening long as the Earth Mother with her beads, her gladrags and her hot-flash hippie antics. But seeing her in gym togs, gasping "Puff, My God, I'm Draggin'" amid futile attempts at aerobics, was equally memorable. Hyde's extended naïveté as the Iowa Housewife paid rich dividends when she had her breakout epiphany, "Only You." This ecstatic adoration of her newly-acquired vibrator — sung into a phallic pink microphone — was the showstopper.

Making a splash in her stage debut as Power Woman, Mekole Wells is funkier than anybody else onstage (or on the TOC sampler). Wells shakes some serious Tina Turner booty in "What's Love Got to Do With It?" and gets down, honey, with Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry," parodied as "I'm Flashing."

All of these women credibly answer Linders' casting call for women over 40 and size 10. The lone exception is Yvette McGregor, playing the Soap Star, who could stand to put on some cellulite. Kidding aside, McGregor stands apart from the cast most of the evening — either because she's grown bored with the show or thinks she's above it. When she gives herself over to the prevailing orgiastic midlife spirit, however, McGregor does make the mercury climb to 103 in Irving Berlin's "Heat Wave." Vamping a guy in the audience, she turns "I'm having a hot flash" into a pickup line.

True, Linders' parodies aren't always brimming with brilliance or originality. But as this vibrant foursome go through their litany of ailments — bulging thighs, diminished lovemaking, insomnia, night sweats, memory loss, Prozac dependency — the chemistry of the gals onstage and their rapport with the women in the audience more than compensate for the lapses in the lyrics.

Yup, it's definitely a ladies' night out at the refurbished Capri, with a ringside section of the old movie theater outfitted with cocktail tables. Guys with non-porcine gender politics will also have a decent time

After a lackluster start to their 32nd season, CP Summer Theatre is playing their aces with Susan Knowlson and Patrick Ratchford starring in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Knowlson and Ratchford are so compatible and evenly matched that choosing between their performances has become an exercise in determining who has the juicier role : and the more memorable songs. They do appear jointly with dizzying frequency, and CP's production of The Last Five Years last August demonstrated their intrinsic parity.Here we've got to give the edge to Knowlson as Milly, the headstrong waitress who accepts Adam Pontipee's precipitous proposal to marry him and run off to his mountain cabin. There she encounters the rugged Adam's six wild brothers, none of whom seems to have struck an acquaintance with a female before — or a knife and fork.

So it's Milly who has the Herculean task of civilizing the herd so they can find brides in the proper way. This gives her a chance to sing "Goin' Courting" to the younger brothers, a scene that puts her in the pantheon of musical heroines who take on mentoring roles in The King and I, The Sound of Music and Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Adam, on the other hand, merely battles his own inflated ego and misogyny. Ratchford, somewhat short on gruffness, makes that even less of a challenge, though he twists his sweet baritone enough to make "A Woman Ought to Know Her Place" ring out with vileness. Our hero doesn't quite conquer the phony beard he puts on twice during the evening. Gathered for dinner with his sibs at their mountain hideaway, Adam and kin give us one more reminder of Snow White than we bargained for.

To the six brothers and their six stolen brides, you must add six hapless dweebs who bring the brides to the social where they're wooed before their kidnapping. Director Tom Hollis and a vibrant cast labor to keep this crowd from becoming faceless. But Linda Booth's choreography for the social really helps the ensemble shine, adding an exciting West Side Story combativeness to the brothers' first brush with gentility. With just the right touches of athleticism and humor.

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