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Funny 'Monsters!' still a tad bedeviled

Facing one's demons isn't supposed to be fun, but Gail Phaneuf and Ernie Lijoi have found a way to do it. Their new show, ``Monsters! The Musical," is receiving its world premiere in a Centastage production at Boston Center for the Arts. There's much to like about the musical, including its enormously entertaining premise, in which a woman named Samantha (Lisa Beausoleil) sings, dances, and battles with a trio of her personal demons on her 40th birthday. There's also a lot more work ahead for the creators in order to strengthen and deepen the show.

``Monsters!" captures Samantha's not-so-wonderful life: A befuddled Everywoman, she's unemployed and facing middle age, with an overbearing mother (Cheryl McMahon), an apartment half-decorated, and an international trip half-booked (inspiring her to sing the lament ``Half of a Life").

Where the script needs more work is in presenting Samantha's transformation from reactive to proactive, the play's chief dramatic arc. Beausoleil is given only one emotion to portray -- stress -- while ``Monsters!" busies itself with its own cleverness, lingering on how entertaining it is to have monsters (named Apathy, Fear, and Body) without giving them much to do. We see them. We accept them. But they are each given two songs to make one point.

Despite such redundancy, the show is lively under the direction of Joe Antoun, and the cast features capable singers. As Samantha's mother, McMahon is excellent -- exceedingly funny in her relentless criticism. Their relationship provides a strong start to ``Monsters," highlighting both women's quirks and raising the question of whether Samantha's mother might also be a monster. McMahon's character essentially disappears, however (save for a handle of ``magic" appearances that yield very little onstage benefit), until the show's end. It's a disappointment, but thank goodness for the delightful Patti Hathaway, who plays Apathy, the first monster Samantha encounters in her apartment. Clad in an aqua tracksuit and munching on Baked Lays, Apathy advises Samantha against anything that requires too much work.

Not far behind are Fear (a cape-wearing Michelle Dowd) and Body (a sashaying Wayne Fritsche) to really drive home Samantha's pathetic situation. Even though they both harp on her appearance, Body's two tunes are lyrically delicious. He alerts Samantha to the ravages of gravity and bemoans the state of her wardrobe in ``All Downhill From Here" and ``Make the Most of What Little You've Got." As the Birthday Singer, Molly Anne Kelleher offers a good but somewhat rushed plot twist.

Ken Ross's design is too expansive for a present-day Manhattan apartment, something that would probably go unnoticed if the staging or choreography made more use of the available space rather than hovering around a sofa at center stage. Steven Bergman leads a sometimes drum-heavy four-piece band through the show's 15 songs, including the finale, which could be renamed ``All the Show's Numbers Smooshed Into One." It's supposed to represent the exorcism of Samantha's personal demons, but it's really a bit of a mess.

Phaneuf and Lijoi understandably linger on humorous topics, but ``Monsters ! " stalls as material is retraced. Thoughtfully funny, yes. Thoroughly finished, no.

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