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Musical `Smile' salutes teen-age hopefuls

Smile Musical by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Howard Ashman (book and lyrics). Based on the screenplay by Jerry Belson. Directed by Mr. Ashman. Musical staging by Mary Kyte. Playwright Howard Ashman, who had such fun with carnivorous plant life in the Off Broaday hit, ``Little Shop of Horrors,'' has gone to another screen source for his latest project. Mr. Ashram is joined on this occasion by composer Marvin Hamlisch, whose major credits include ``A Chorus Line'' and ``They're Playing Our Song.'' The result of their joint efforts is ``Smile,'' an elaborate musical about a California Young American Miss beauty pageant. And a not very happy result it is.

``Smile,'' at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, comes most infectiously to life in several of Mary Kyte's well-drilled dance routines, notably in the hilarious ineptitudes of ``Shine.'' A jaded professional choreographer (Michael O'Gorman) strives to turn a bunch of high-school kids into Las Vegas showgirls. It's typical of Mr. Hamlisch's musical contribution and Ms. Kyte's choreographic inspiration. At other times, ``Smile'' seems bent on demonstrating how many teen-age hopefuls can dance on one of Douglas W. Schmidt's accommodating turntables.

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It may be that the hype and hoopla of the American beauty pageant are too self-parodying to stand further lampoon. In any case, Ashman's libretto alternates between satire and soap opera, as it meanders through a clutter of plots and subplots. On the one hand, the story concerns a timorous newcomer (Anne Marie Bobby) and her more sophisticated roommate (Jodi Benson) in their efforts to ``go for the gold and form the future'' (to quote the contest slogan). On the other hand, ``Smile'' records the mounting conflicts between the husband and wife (Marsha Waterbury and Jeff McCarthy) who stage-manage the ceremonies and whose young son takes the peeping-Tom photo of a contestant that ruins her chances and almost wrecks the pageant.

Without having seen the 1975 movie that inspired ``Smile,'' I cannot tell how faithfully the version staged by Ashman follows the original. But on its own terms as an affectionate sendup of a glitzy American institution or as an expos'e of plastic values and success-at-any-cost opportunism, ``Smile'' is nothing to cheer about.

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