It's not too early to consider both sides of what will probably be the most heated debate to emerge from this year's Midtown International Theatre Festival: First, is Elisa DeCarlo ready for musical theatre? Second, is musical theatre ready for Elisa DeCarlo?
It's clear from the opening moments of DeCarlo's new show, Cervix with a Smile, that neither question is easily answered. Standing before the audience in a frilly red blouse and a poodle skirt, she's a middle-aged parody of a 1950s teeny-bopper, and you can't help but feel she's about ready to launch into a satirical adolescent torch song. And gosh darn it if that isn't just what she does.
The catch: It's called "Dream Date With Jesus."
Yes, for several minutes, DeCarlo sings a heartwarmingly melancholy solo about the best night of her life, when she had a truly divine date for the school sock hop. "I prayed to God to help me," she sings, and from Jesus's way with providing refreshments and giving her a burning bush corsage, were they ever answered.
This twisted spectacle will only be a jaw-dropping surprise to those who didn't see DeCarlo's one-woman show in last year's MITF, Toasted, in which she detailed how her life was thrown into turmoil by a violent post on an Internet mailing list. Anyone who saw Toasted is aware that DeCarlo's way with a story - in both the writing and the delivery - is entirely her own, and the bases are always loaded even when you're not sure who's up at bat.
But to say that the material in Cervix with a Smile runs the gamut is to not understand what the word "gamut" truly means. DeCarlo's other characters include personalities as diverse as Grendel, a cross between Marlene Dietrich and a zombie infestation, and Esther, a die-hard feminist fighting against the tamponocracy. Her songs (many of which were written with Ellen Mandel) include a country ballad called "You Stained My Furniture & Broke My Heart," an endless Weimar Republic-styled song called "Love Lobotomy," and the double-entendre-laden "That Man Can Cook."
Variety is certainly not DeCarlo's failing; her desire to do everything herself might be. She's neither a natural singer nor a natural actress, and those liabilities do stand in the show's way. DeCarlo deserves credit for daring to play a Martha Stewart-type home guru dispensing S&M tips and a sex-obsessed subway preacher, but she never vanishes into most of her characters. The experience is generally one of watching someone entertain friends at a cocktail party: You like what you're seeing, but you know a true professional would make it funnier. (In fairness, DeCarlo isn't completely alone here: She's joined onstage by Tracy Stark, who plays the piano and embodies an occasional minor role, and Sally Regan, and she's been directed by Rod Cassavale, but it's her show any way you look at it.)
It's hard to imagine, though, many top-flight performers getting more mileage out of an adolescent girl's rambling description of her first sexual experience (DeCarlo's unique method of yelling to her offstage mother had me in hysterics more than once) and her transformation into the male Big Red, a libidinous lug with a particular taste for bestiality, is nothing less than total. When DeCarlo has the right material, she really has the right stuff.
Of course, some things are completely beyond her, or anyone's, control: A lengthy monologue for Lulu, an ancient exotic dancer, is as laugh-free as it is interminable, and trying to make the shockingly morbid "Dead Guys By the Highway" into a sing-along is only a slightly worse idea than trying to get laughs out the song in the first place.
But I'm willing to allow DeCarlo missteps like these, because they mean that she's willing to take chances; too many people in today's theatre aren't. If DeCarlo ends up as the cult Off-Off-Broadway celebrity she seems to aspire to be, it will be for precisely that reason. She's not to that point yet, but with more efforts like Toasted and Cervix with a Smile, it's only a matter of time.
She may, however, do better to cede the spotlight to a more polished performer, someone capable of bringing more solid character to the scenes and a keener musicianship to the songs. Part of DeCarlo's journey might just be discovering that she can do more good offstage than on. I'm leaning toward believing that about her myself, but it's important that she sticks around, regardless of the capacity. Off-Off-Broadway theatre is simply more interesting with her involved in it.
Cervix with a Smile