BY BOO BROWNING
Ever wish Barbra Streisand didn't so desperately want to be an actress? A similar sentiment is the result of Karla DeVito's debut album, "Is This a Cool World or What?" In this instance, however, one ends up wondering what makes DeVito want to keep treading the murky waters of pop music when she could have the television sit-com of her choice. DeVito gives clues about this herself in a typically cute resume/bio: jumped on her mother's bed to the beat of Dion's "Ruby Baby"; traded two Barbie doll dresses for a copy of Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me"; first high-school rock band played "White Rabbit," and so on. What she's trying to say, I think, is that she had rock and roll in her blood at an early age. Hamilton Jordan and Cher Bono Allman have also made such claims. Not to question DeVito's vocal appeal -- she sings at least as well as Streisand acts. But she also got into theater early on, particularly comedy theater (Second City, "El Grande de Coca-Cola"), and it was very, very good to her. She's been straddling the line ever since (most recently as Linda Ronstadt's West Coast counterpart in the L.A. version of "Pirates of Penzance"), and her work sounds more like an ongoing audition for a musical comedy than anything else. As the hot-pantsed high-schooler in "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," DeVito and her unquashable humor gave Meat Loaf taste and texture that he's been woefully unable to recapture as a solo act. On her own record, this comedic sense is a lovable but tiresome quirk. Only the crankiest curmudgeon could despise someone who decorates her album with balloons and baby pix and pens lines like "I want some French sunglasses / calls waiting on my phone." These, after all, are the very reasons she can do a version of "Midnight Confession" that sounds like Shirley Temple in the throes of extramarital petit-mort and live to tell about it. And that's not the only rock classic DeVito dislodges. J.C. Fogerty's "Almost Saturday Night" has such a Barbie-and-Ken giddiness to it that you wonder whether the Lesley Gore record was such a great bargain after all. I won't distress you further with a description of Randy Newman's "Just One Smile." Devito rushes through these 12 tracks like a breathless sorority pledge, lingering here to see if her vibrato is still in place, blurting out a sob there for dramatic effect. To her credit, she never lets the histrionics descend to the kick-me, beat-me level of Pat Benatar, but she never lets the emotion get beyond the merely stagey, either. Not surprisingly, the best work on the album is the title track, a sort of musical reprise of the aforementioned resume, but even this tune suffers from a contradiction in mood: I'm in a brown study I'm in a blue funk I'm in a purple haze Sure, and Laverne and Shirley are entertaining thoughts of a suicide pact. "Cool World" has the late-night-pizza perkiness of a thousand dorm rooms, the madcap theatricality of a Broadway romp. But it has little to do with pop music, less with rock. One wants to tousle DeVito's mop for this effort, pinch her healthy cheeks, perhaps, but not pay $9.98 for the privilege. If this album is an audition for something bigger and better, I hope she gets the part. If, however, it's only the first role in a career DeVito has finally settled upon, she may soon discover the rock world, at least, to be a lot cooler than she thought. THE ALBUM -- Karla DeVito, "Is This a Cool World or What?" Epic NFE 37014.