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The press packet for Herringbone at the La Jolla Playhouse includes an “artist’s statement” claiming that the “dark, quirky musical allegory” hopes “to illuminate the schizophrenia of what it means to be an American.” Well, first of all, just about every play written these days does that without half trying; and, second, Herringbone should concern itself less with ultimate significance and much more with making the story grab audiences, rather than trying to wow them.

The idea’s arresting. It’s 1929, the year, the musical says, “panic became respectable.” People will remember our present economic malaise, says novelist Margaret Atwood, as the time when “debt became the new fat.”

Eight-year-old George Nukin enters a speech contest in Demopolis, Alabama. He wins a $25 bond and takes acting classes. Somehow, the ghost of Lou — the frog half of Chicken and Frog, a burlesque act — possesses George. A 37-year-old, 36-inch man, Lou was “the best midget hoofer in the business.” Lou’s partner murdered him ten years ago. At first jaded, bitter Lou inhabits little George to get even with his partner (and does). But then, think of it! Now he has the energy of an eight-year-old. And he’s gotta dance!

“Funny how some flowers bloom in plants you’d never guess.” The grafting plunks an experienced old womanizer into the body of an innocent (a song boasts that you can “Build a Man” from the outside in). The combination creates an oxymoronic being: a sex-starved prepubescent. George becomes the best young hoofer on the planet, and they head to Hollywood for the big bucks.

The body-mates eventually clash — during a kind of en flagrante interruptus at the La Rochelle Hotel — but not much before then. In fact, given the inherent “schizophrenia” of the piece, there’s little tension until the conclusion. This lack comes, in part, because Tom Cone’s book feels padded, as if it began as a 90-minute, no-intermission sprint that got expanded and diluted — the first act especially — in the process.

Tension also wanes because, until the end, most of the drama is tacked on. Then the script makes a major tonal shift, moves inside, and waxes bipolar/Gothic. The change isn’t just a jump, it’s a vault, unprepared by anything that comes before it, since until now the text has milked the notion of coinhabitants for comedy.

Skip Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh’s useful score laces standard musical theater numbers with vaudeville intonations. If they marbled in more dissonance, à la Randy Newman, they could help foreshadow the vault into the blue.

B.D. Wong won every imaginable award in 1988 for his performance as Song Liling, the man-woman unbeknownst to his lover for 20 years, in M. Butterfly. He’s a regular on Law and Order, Special Victims Unit, and has performed Herringbone several times. He’s an obvious talent, though his opening night fell short of the expected tour de force this show demands. Wong plays 11 characters, sings 14 songs, and narrates as well. He must shift characters in an instant, sing, and dance up a storm as “Little Mister Tippy Toes.”

Would he could sing as well as he dances. Wong brings athletic grace to various styles from tap to waltz. The dances function as brief demonstration pieces, however, and he never has a chance to cut loose with a big number. But then again, he’s in near-constant motion throughout, with every move choreographed by Darren Lee on a whirling turntable.

When Wong sings, particularly when holding a note, his voice goes flat, at times even screechy. It’s hard to tell if he doesn’t have the chops or lost them during rehearsals and previews. That he’s more effective with the early numbers suggests the latter.

Wong and multitalented director Roger Rees have worked on several productions of Herringbone. What could be a positive may work against them, since the piece, overall, has a cluttered feel. Along with the story, the songs, and dances, the show adds a meta-level about the making of theater. Wong begins in his dressing room (which, thanks to legendary scenic designer Eugene Lee, shuttles on and off the stage, a move from realism to fantasy). As he narrates, Wong sometimes stops and becomes George, and sometimes himself, struggling with things he forgot to say or with issues in the tale. These self-reflexive takes intrude on the basic story and often appear when creators know a piece too well and want to make it new. They become hooked on leaves and twigs and forget they’re growing a forest.

What gets lost in the show-biz dazzle are the core emotions the bizarre yoking of George and Lou should generate.

Herringbone, book by Tom Cone, music by Skip Kennon, lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh
La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD
Directed by Roger Rees; cast: B.D. Wong; scenic design, Eugene Lee; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Leon Rothenberg
Playing through August 30; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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