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Ye pods! 

Body Snatchers premise awkwardly fits musical format

A musical version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers may sound insanely misguided, but it's not without precedent. The Little Shop of Horrors musicalized another cult 1950s sci-fi film, which also involved menacing veggies from outer space.

But Little Shop perfectly matched its campy source with its pastiche of doo-wop music, while Body Snatchers: The Musical lacks such an ingenious scheme. The 14th Street Playhouse production, a lead-in to an off-Broadway opening, has a likable, talented cast that performs the best numbers with gusto even as it suffers from Body Snatchers' conceptual contradictions.

Body Snatchers' creative brain trust -- composer Bob Lesoine, Greater Tuna's Ed Howard and Jomandi co-founder Thomas W. Jones -- cite Jack Finney's original novel as the play's inspiration. But their Body Snatchers is really its own thing, with the small town of Mill Valley proving a funky place, the streets lined with dancers in hip-hop gear and some of the music tinged with '70s R&B.

Mill Valley's also rather densely populated as we try to sort out its cast of characters, including showman sheriff (T.C. Carson), steamy author Theodora (Jannie Jones), her husband/manager Jack (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) and put-upon Nurse Nancy (Amanda Weeden), who's smitten with the town's nebbish but self-important doctor Miles (Eric Eichenberger, the show's MVP). Their doctor's office scenes boast the play's snappiest patter.

Miles suspects that either a virus or mass hysteria is causing citizens to accuse loved ones of being impostors. Joannie (Clark Mims) a white "fly girl," offers a case in point by singing "She's Not My Mom," and when the back-up singers join in, Miles quips, "She's hearing voices!"

Jones also directs Body Snatchers and injects plenty of energy to its most spirited numbers, with "Welcome to the Party" keeping the cast in raucous motion. When an unfinished pod person is found in the basement, the partying ensemble moves amusingly in unison to check it out, describing it en masse in "Skin So Smooth."

The return of Becky (Kacie Sheik), Miles' high school love interest, distracts the doc from the townsfolk's transformations and the connection to the oversized bean pods sprouting up all over. Eventually Miles, Becky, Theodora and Jack realize that they're surrounded by emotionless replicants, and Act One ends with the four players confronting giant pods reminiscent of Spinal Tap.

Body Snatchers suffers from having a bumper crop of bad jokes (one pod person calls himself "a human bean") and juvenile innuendoes that make the characters less sympathetic. In its oddest touch, Joannie's mother, Benita Bud, is played by a man (Dennis Spears), and the play can't seem to decide if the joke is that the character is a drag queen, or that the actor is.

Sheik speaks in an "air-head" squeak as Becky, which makes it both funny and impressive when she initially belts out "I'm guilty of uu--uu--uu-- unspeakable crimes!" in a roof-raising voice. Carson demonstrates sinuous footwork and body language as the pod person "master of ceremonies."

Yet the lively choreography and expressive costumes can run contrary to Body Snatchers' essential premise. The play's point is that the pod people have no emotions and that joining them is the most chilling kind of conformity, shown in their theme "Be With Us, Be the Same." At one point, Miles and Becky impersonate pod people by imitating their bizarre dance, "All Night Pod Strut."

But enthusiastic singers like Carson suggest that if pod people have no feelings, they still have soul. Plus, the players dance and dress with such individuality that, in the vocabulary of musical theater, the "assimilation" theme makes little sense.

A work still in progress, Body Snatchers proves a rarity, a musical that would be improved with less humor and more monotony.

Body Snatchers: The Musical plays through May 25 at the 14th Street Playhouse, 173 14th St., with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sat., and 3 p.m. Sun. $25-$35. 404-733-4738.

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