The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, established in 1998, has built a reputation for the theatrical equivalent of comfort food: reheated, crowd-pleasing chestnuts like “Oliver!” and “Guys and Dolls.” No apologies; the board of this nonprofit organization knows that an old favorite will fill seats. But occasionally, the center showcases original works. A new musical momentarily shoves aside the chestnuts while also paying homage to them.
“Dollface,” which runs April 12 through 15, is a sidelong wink at the synthetically cheery 1950s and the breezy musicals that flourished during that era. Its spunky protagonist is Dolores Faith Zuckerman (Linda Shell), a gal who aches for the big-time as a comedienne. She sure has dreams. “Coca, Storm, Fabray, and Ball,” she sings, defiantly. “Damn! I’m funnier than them all.” But who has the heart to tell Dolores that she’s about as funny as a crutch?
As she pines for that big break, Dolores meets a gym teacher named Hank (Collin Carr). Suddenly, he’s pitching woo and tempting her with married life on Utopia Parkway in Queens. Will Dolores pursue the elusive fame or opt for a place at the kitchen stove?
The show’s composer-lyricist is David Forman, who co-wrote “Dollface” with BJ Sebring. Forman jokes that the husband-wife collaboration involved “a lot of head banging in the dining room.” A past president of the Rhinebeck Theater Society, he has appeared in the center’s productions of “The Front Page,” “The Threepenny Opera,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Twelfth Night.” The first act of “Dollface” was workshopped at Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater summer series in 2004.
The cast includes David Tass Rodriguez, Carla Rozman, Lance Lavender, Karen Gale, Joe Felece, and Donna Generale, all playing the larger-than-life characters you might still find on a trip over the Queensborough Bridge. (Forman, for the record, hails from Brooklyn.)
Like a number of ’50s musicals—think of the gangster’s horse-betting scheme in “Bells Are Ringing”—“Dollface” also sports a shaggy-dog subplot. This one involves a magician and a double-crossing jewelry heist. What this musical lacks is warmed-over, ’50s-style greaser music. “This is not a pastiche or parody,” says Forman, who has written tunes for Cyndi Lauper, Levon Helm, Marianne Faithfull, and The Hooters, as well as for TV and radio commercials. He wrote numbers that paid homage to pre-rock ’n' roll divas Jo Stafford and Gogi Grant.
Forman had another collaborator on “Dollface”: Bette Midler. They met through The Hooters’s Rob Hyman, a longtime friend who had worked with Forman on a 2001 musical called “Largo.” At the time, Midler wanted a stage show written for her. Several meetings were held in her Manhattan townhouse and Midler eventually contributed to two songs for “Dollface,” coaching Forman to forgo predictable, glib lyrics for a couplet that would tear at the heart. Since then, the legendarily fickle Miss M has backed off from the project, but Forman and Sebring continued on their own.
“I’m running with this thing,” Forman says.
“Dollface” will be performed at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck April 12 through 14 at 8pm and on April 15 at 2pm. (845) 876-3080; www.centerforperformingarts.org.