Off Broadway Reviews
Show Choir! The Musical
Alcohol: Where would tortured writers be without it? Chances are that Charles Bukowski, to pick just one, would not be the subject of the New York International Fringe Festival musical that's ridden a wave of zaniness all the way from Los Angeles. Yes, there have been a fair number of West Coast imports over the past several years, most uproarious parodies of the traditional musical: Bat Boy, Reefer Madness, and David Henry Hwang's Flower Drum Song. Bukowsical!, which was written by Spencer Green and Gary Stockdale, is vying to join that club, and might well succeed: While it's impish, imperfect, and unpolished, it's also occasionally quite funny and has a great score.
The evening is presented as a backer's audition for an "Experience" from the Sacred Angel Fist Circle of Note Gang Theater, under the direction of its illustrious Founder, John Marcus Cardiff (a delightfully pompous Marc Cardiff). In charge of setting the stage and outlining the spectacle he envisions should he raise his proposed $500,000 seed money, he transforms his group of eight players into Bukowski (Brad Blaisdell); his faithful One True Love (Fleur Phillips); and other noteworthies such as Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn, Sylvia Plath, and a bottle or nine of Jack Daniels, all of whom figure prominently in Bukowski's journey from a poor childhood to struggling artist to unlikely literary hero.
Bukowsical!, which has been ably directed by Joe Peracchio, doesn't contain much that will surprise Downtown theatre veterans: Its elbow-nudging manner and overeagerness to shock aren't mush fresher now than they were in definitive Fringe entries like Urinetown (which eventually made it to Broadway) or Silence! The Musical (which opens Off-Broadway next month). But its songs are uncommonly terrific for the genre, perfect ornaments for a musical about this Hemingway of the disaffected. As Bukowski's own influences ranged from Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Franz Kafka and D.H. Lawrence, so too does the score sample from diverse talents like Kurt Weill, Harold Rome, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. If the numbers at times feel schizophrenic, and contain a few too many "unexpected" specialty turns for twists in the meta-plot plot, they all make for a roundly enjoyable collage that proves a surprisingly effective theatrical representation of a man spiraling into drunken, musical-comedy oblivion.
The cast mostly comprises able comics and decent singers who tend to vacation in their various roles rather than own them outright. The sensational exception is Phillips, who boasts a gold-plated brass belt voice, a seductive physicality, and a shrewd sense of comedy that roots her at the center in every scene she's in. She's wonderful throughout, but is never better than in her climactic tour de force "Remember Me," in which she irreversibly blurs the lines between spoof and sentiment as a woman on the outs who isn't out of ideas. Surprisingly, she doesn't also play Bukowski's other true love, booze - that's left to another actress. But what Phillips does is so good you can't help drinking her up all the same.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Show Choir! The Musical
Cheese in a spray can might suffice for a 10-minute snack binge, but as a two-hour meal it's practically a death sentence. So is the Fringe production of Show Choir! The Musical, distinguishable from aerosol cheese only by its considerably greater frequency of jazz hands. As written by Mark McDaniels and Donald Garverick, Show Choir! is a cross between Altar Boyz, High School Musical, and The E! True Hollywood Story, but without those works' preciseness of focus or purity of intent.
The show tracks the suitably tortured history of a high-school show choir from anonymity to popular stardom and then back... and then back again, with stops at the Super Bowl, tabloids' front pages, and even a 10-month-long coma. But because the writers couldn't decide on a consistent tone, the show thrashes lifelessly between seriousness and parody, too winky to be dramatic and too earnest to be funny.
The choir's numbers are so abrasively bright and optimistic, they make the score of Broadway's Legally Blonde sound downbeat; the characters' songs range from the saccharine (the impressively generic pick-me-up "Destiny") to the downright stupid ("To Write TV Jingles," in which... oh, don't ask). Neither the cast of 20, which is mostly filled by ridiculously attractive and peppy youngsters plastered with plastic smiles and barely a drop of personality between them, nor director-choreographer Gary Slavin can be faulted for failing in their hard-sell approach: Writing this painfully, pointlessly glitzy requires it. Lovers of sequins will rightfully go nuts for Show Choir!; those who prefer their costumes - or their shows - adorned with taste, care, and intelligence shouldn't even bother showing up.
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission