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'You Never Know' is light and lively entertainment

STONEHAM -- There's something refreshing about a musical featuring lovably shallow characters swanning around in a sumptuous apartment and knocking back champagne like it's eau ordinaire. Who needs relevance or emotional depth when we have the escapades of grade-A lounge lizard Baron Rommer and his pint-size butler Gaston in Cole Porter's ``You Never Know," receiving an energetically effervescent production at Stoneham Theatre?

These two decide to switch identities for the evening while each romances a lady (or two, or three) who wanders into the flat. Everyone launches into a tune at the drop of a top hat, and no one is exactly who he or she seems. Porter composed so many great songs that even when the tunes aren't up to the master's highest mark, his lyrical facility is still awesomely complex.

``You Never Know" is a 1991 adaptation of a 1929 Porter mistaken-identity musical, and director Caitlin Lowans brings a sensitive touch to the Roaring '20s verisimilitude of this production. Her able team includes designer Jeremy Barnett, whose elegant, swellegant two-level apartment features those staples of drawing-room farce, a grand piano and a chaise for seduction. And the pit band stashed behind glass doors upstage is superb.

As the Baron, Sean McGuirk has warmth and a light touch with his songs, including such classics as ``At Long Last Love" and such less memorable balladry (despite repeated reprisal) as ``By Candlelight."

But this production is anchored by Steve Gagliastro as Gaston. His gleefully arched eyebrows and bemused half-smirks put him right in the era of screwball farce. Constantly changing his garments from service uniform to dinner jacket, and letting every last morpheme of Porter's polysyllabic sprees ripple off his tongue, Gagliastro has Broadway-scale energy.

Sarah Corey's Maria, the lady who arrives at the penthouse because of a misdialed phone, is fetching in her borrowed finery. She's indeed Gaston's dream, ``a lady who takes two baths a day."

If there is any disappointment, it's that the character of Ida, the Baron's soon-to-be-discarded lover, gets just one song -- a deplorable squandering of resources with Leigh Barrett in the cast. But Barrett shines in the rambunctious ``I'm Back in Circulation" (cut from the 1938 Broadway version), a fast-paced pledge of defiance.

Contemporary musical theater has little interest in fusing sustained silliness with sophisticated wit. Yes, plenty of the lesser-known Porter melodies here fly by without sticking. But Stoneham Theatre deserves kudos for skillfully cooking up this fanciful musical soufflé.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review of Cole Porter's ``You Never Know" in yesterday's Living/Arts section listed the wrong phone number for the Stoneham Theatre box office. The number is 781-279-2200.)

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