Betty Rules: The Exception to the Musical
Also see John's review of Heartbreak House
The PBS telecast of the 1992 Tribute to Sondheim at Carnegie Hall, featuring performances by the likes of Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Liza Minnelli, was the first time I'd ever heard of the vocal trio Betty. Listening to them sing "I Never Do Anything Twice," I wondered, "Am I supposed to know who they are?" I heard no more of them until July 2000, when they sang at the international conference of Gay and Lesbian Choruses. They were listed not as headliners, but as if they were simply another chorus. Again, they slipped from my mind until earlier this year, as I wondered who in the world would be chosen to perform the nominated song from The Triplets of Belleville at the Academy Awards. The choice of surrogates for those goofy animated sisters turned out to be inspired. Betty returned to sing at the Oscars.
When I read that the three would be coming to Chicago to perform Betty Rules: The Exception to the Musical, directed by Rent's Michael Greif, I got myself on the press list as fast as possible. Watching the show, I was relieved to learn that I wasn't entirely out of it for not having heard of them before the Sondheim Tribute, or not hearing much about them before this year's Academy Awards telecast. In Betty Rules, a mostly linear recounting of the group's history through scenes, monologues and song, the singers re-enact their lengthy but erratic career. It seems while they've had their moments, their trajectory has hardly been a linear upward climb, and the show notes the day jobs they took and gigs like radio commercials they did just to keep going. Apparently, they even broke up for a while.
The women of Betty are sisters Amy and Elizabeth Ziff, and Alyson Palmer. Their mix of close harmonies, sometimes accompanied by a drummer and electric guitarist (Mino Gori and Alyson's husband, Tony Salvatore respectively) sitting on a platform above the stage a la Rent, sometimes not, makes them hard to categorize. I found myself enjoying their a cappella numbers more than the accompanied ones. It's easier to appreciate their silky voices and perfectly blended harmonies without the amplified backup.
The big news of Betty Rules, originally performed off-Broadway in the 2002-03 season is that the girls' talents go beyond their music. They're not actresses exactly. When reading simple expository lines they're not convincing, even though they're playing themselves. When they're playing characters (like Amy as a terminally peppy flight attendant, or a good ole boy from Kentucky), playing themselves in a previous life (as witches burning at the stake) or just doing monologues, they're a hoot. Much of the comedy involves their "band therapy," a sort of trio-counseling session in which they attempt to work out their differences. Another extended sequence details their experience in dealing with the rigors of camping and the personalities of fellow attendees while performing at a womyn's music festival.
The ninety-minute show is roughly equally divided between spoken material and songs (all original compositions by the group). Though it may have be their music that draws audiences to the show, the balance seems about right.
Besides the comedy, the dramatic material includes some touching moments as well, including those in which the girls talk about the deaths of their mothers and the reunion of the band following their breakup. Even though there's obviously no suspense as to whether or not they'll reunite (they're together onstage after all), it still ends the show with a nice emotional lift.
It's not exactly a backstage musical. The plot is too sketchy to fill in very many details of their 19-year career. We're mostly given a peek into the unique powers of perception of these three artists. They're originals, and if they haven't achieved the fame they might deserve, you get the impression they may be okay with that. It seems to be more important to them to be writing and singing for somebody, no matter whether the venue is Carnegie Hall, an amateur music festival, or an Off-Broadway or off-Loop theater. According to their web site, the Chicago engagement is the first of the Betty Rules North American tour, but it also lists an email address for booking inquiries, so this may be the only definite booking at this point. Regardless, one gets the feeling there are several good chapters left in this show business story.
Betty Rules is playing at the Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway, Chicago, through June 20. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 7 and 9:30 and Sundays at 5. Ticket prices are $20 to $39.90. Tickets can be purchased through the Lakeshore Theater Box Office, by calling 773-472-3492, or online at www.lakeshoretheater.com or www.bettyrules.com.