Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Gays and Dolls
Do you ever get the feeling you're in a parallel universe where money can buy you love, every lunch is free, and politicians are honest? Never happens? How about a perpendicular universe where pigs are still grounded but life's absolutes are just a little bit "off"? I had such a moment at the Loring Playhouse this weekend while watching Gaydar Productions' two musical revues, the all-female A ... My Name is Alice and all-male Bed, Boys and Beyond: The material about finding true love, having a dream wedding and battling a negative body image was NOT in the show by and about women. Wow, life is so askew nothing would surprise me; maybe Ronald Reagan isn't really dead, but merely resting.
Gaydar made an interesting artistic choice in running Alice and Bed in repertory on the same stage set, turning them into opposite-gender mirrors of one another. The set, designed by Doug Anderson and Perrin Post, is basic: a back wall grounds the action and four narrow walls are staggered on the left and right sides of the stage to provide actor entrances; everything is painted glossy black with enormous white male and female symbols running across them. An A and B have been creatively merged to create a strangely Prince-like glyph on the back wall.
Alice, conceived by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd, won the 1984 Outer Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Revue. It was a launching pad for a number of writers and musicians, including Cassandra Medley, Lucy Simon and Carol Hall. Alice is a loosely stitched array of sketches and songs illustrating the range of women's roles in life - they're mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, lovers, teachers, blues singers, basketball stars, shrinks, and randy receptionists. The five actresses in the piece play a variety of roles: Greta Grosch, a rubber-faced Amazon, nails the passive-aggressive teacher role in "Welcome to Kindergarten, Mrs. Johnson" and the PC shrink in "Honeypot"; Amy James does a nice turn as Mindy the romance-starved receptionist seeking a "crazy life of danger, sex and booze" in "Trash"; Joanna Jahn has a terrific voice and the comic appeal to pull off the sometimes-French chanteuse who "dies for love.twice a night" in the nonsensical "The French Song"; Janet Paone, a Buddy Hackett look-alike, is screamingly funny as the Wiccan Priestess/Beat Poet in the trio of "For Women Only Poems" and as the blues singer in "Honeypot"; newcomer Erica Kragness has the least acting range of the group but garners laughs as a wronged woman who exacts soapy washday revenge in "Demigod." Director T.S. Lewis doesn't impose a flashy hand on Alice; instead, he winds up the ensemble and lets the material speak for itself. In general, this ensemble is more effective with the comic songs than with the serious ones; the latter tend to give way to mawkish sentimentality.
Alice possesses strong writing and a local pedigree (it was produced twice by Mixed Blood Theatre over the last fifteen years). Bed, in its local premiere, doesn't pack the writing punch, universality or wit that has made Alice an enduring favorite. The seventeen songs that composer Alfredo Alvarez and lyricist Jeff Dobbins have written for Bed are mostly forgettable. The most maudlin (like "Family Values") come off as self-conscious homilies set to music. Much of the writing in Bed reminds me of that venerable PSA, "Constitution Rock": I know our Constitution's preamble because someone set it to a kicky pop tune and the music stuck in my gulliver. While Alvarez and Dobbins attempt to employ this same technique to make their worthwhile message memorable, they miss the boat because they've forgotten one thing: poetry - even the Constitution has it. If songwriters could be successful by setting just any old text to music, Stephen Sondheim would be out of a job and we'd all be singing the White Pages to ourselves in the shower.
Director Perrin Post tries to counteract Bed's shortcomings by imposing a highly choreographed staging on the piece. Unfortunately, this is a silk purse/sow's ear situation, and the staginess of the production is distracting. Post and Choreographer Karis Sloss have come up with a bunch of business using white and black painted cubes that look like square Holstein cows on wheels. These things roll like thunder across the stage, drowning out the songs they're employed to elucidate. There are occasional comic high points to the piece, including Dana Munson's ode to the "naturally nelly" in "The Misfit's Lament," Jay Baumgartner's instructions to fresh-faced Jacob Mahoney to work on his tan and purchase "jeans tight enough to hurt" in "Minneapolis Man," and Doug Anderson's over-the-top monologue describing his ideal wedding (think Vera Wang dress with a mile-long train, a group of 12 "exes" in sea foam green bridesmaid's gowns, and an a cappella falsetto rendition of "Maria" from The Sound of Music). This ensemble is not as tight as Alice but their gusto and passion for their craft are evident; they are not well served by either their material or their direction.
One of the underpinnings of the women's movement is the idea that women's influence on the world needs to be felt in the public sphere as well as the private one. This message is entertainingly conveyed in Alice, with women being shown in a variety of guises. Bed takes an opposite tack and focuses on the private sphere - love relationships, "nesting," and the search for self-love and esteem. There is universality in this theme as well, but Bed's tone is insular and narcissistic, sacrificing its broad appeal in favor of a niche audience. A gay revue with catchier tunes, cleverer writing, less narcissism and more humanity will help to build the broad audience that Gaydar Productions purports to serve.
A ... My Name is Alice now through July 31, 2004. Thursday & Saturday at 7:30 PM. Bed, Boys and Beyond now through July 31, 2004. Friday @ 7:30 PM, Saturday @ 10 PM. Tickets $20. Gaydar Productions at the Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Call 612-604-4466. Online at UpTownTix.com.Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area