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A groovy trip through the 1970s at Oregon Cabaret Theatre

Oregon Cabaret Theatre's musical romp through the 1970s begins with a moving, pictorial retrospective of the '60s to Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changin'," reminding those of us who hit our adolescence after 1975 that we got robbed.

All the important stuff — civil rights, the Vietnam War, women's rights, the counterculture movement — brought our siblings into their adulthood, and what did we get? Chewbacca and pet rocks.

But "What's Goin' On: Songs of the '70s," which opened Friday, also reminds us of the exuberance and hope of a generation that eschewed tradition to forge its own way toward a better world, even if the path eventually wandered into self-indulgence and platform shoes.

It's a sugar-coated version of the 1970s to be sure, heavy on folk, pop, disco and jazz fusion. You won't hear Pink Floyd, forinstance, or Bruce Springsteen or Queen.

But you will reminisce with the likes of Marvin Gaye, Grace Slick, Carly Simon, Steely Dan and Alicia Bridges. And in this energetic, playful revue, you might find yourself hankering to pick up your own hairbrush and air-sing along.

OCT Artistic Director Jim Giancarlo, who created, directed and choreographed the show, takes us on a tour through the decade with loose threads of narrative portraying hippies, social protest, the women's movement, the disco era, the singles bar and the therapy that was needed after the disco and the singles bar.

His cast comprises five young powerhouses with the vocal chops and a sense of irony to deliver a decade that faded long before they were born: Amber Doss, Matthew Lawrence, Chelsea Richter, Dante Maurice Sterling and Emilee Yaakola.

The first act, like the first half of the '70s, is the most successful. Doss opens with the joyful "Aquarius," her cohorts joining from the audience in a crescendo of harmony, and the energy just keeps building with ensemble renditions of "San Francisco" and "Picnic, A Green City." The mood turns somber when Sterling, with the help of a soaring saxophone played by Michael Vannice, leads the cast in Gaye's "What's Going On" as images of Vietnam War protests and John Lennon and Yoko Ono fill the screen. "You see, war is not the answer," Sterling sings, "for only love will conquer hate."

Giancarlo chose the inspirational "I'm Every Woman," popularized by Chaka Khan, and Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" to represent the women's movement, and he must be thanked for leaving Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" in the vinyl trash heap where it belongs.

The second half is heavy on the disco— and therefore less satisfying — but enjoyable all the same, with Lawrence's hilarious rendition of "Disco Inferno" and Doss' smoldering "Hot Stuff." Yaakola shines in Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" in Giancarlo's vignette of life in a singles bar.

Richter leads the humorous "Therapy" segment with a petulant "Love Hurts," followed by Lawrence's desperate "Baby Come Back" and Doss' determined "I Will Survive." And Yaakola brings the audience an emotionally charged "Neither One of Us (Wants to the be the First to Say Goodbye)." Because the cast members' expressions help tell Giancarlo's narrative, his staging that puts four of them with their backs partially to the audience leaves us wondering what nuances we might be missing.

John Taylor's musical arrangements help tell Giancarlo's story, and listening to his keyboards and Vannice's reeds during costume changes is a treat in itself, even if smooth transitions are lacking.

Designer Kerri Lea Robbins' costumes take a lighthearted trip through the '70s along with the music, from headbands and suede-fringed vests to leotards with handkerchief skirts.

The purposeful early '70s eventually would give way to the 1980s' Me Generation and MTV. Giancarlo's "What's Goin' On" gives us a chance to revel in a time when people looked beyond themselves to change the world.

"What's Goin' On: Songs of the '70s" continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays, and at 1 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 1. Dinner and brunch also are available. For tickets, call 488-2902 orvisit www.oregoncabaret.com.

Cathy Noah is city editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 776-4473 or cnoah@mailtribune.com.