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The Hottest Ticket in Town

(from left) David Rappaport,
Ron Nummi, and
Cassandra Leigh

The Twelve Miles West Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere production of a most entertaining new musical, One Way Ticket to Hell, in its intimate space in Montclair through June 27.

Ticket is a campy, satiric take-off on a Grade Z, no budget, cautionary movie bearing the same title about the wages of marijuana, hard drugs, and loose living. The movie belongs to a genre, produced from the 1930s into and through the 1950s and distributed independently market by market around the country, of mild sexploitation films which tempted gullible audiences with promises of prurience in an era when the power of conservative religious groups and a stringent Hollywood production code locked mainstream American movies into a chaste straightjacket. These films long ago came to be high camp howlers for their fake moral postures, inept dramaturgy, and lurid and ridiculous depictions of "fallen youth".

Produced, written, edited and directed by (as well as starring) Bamlet L. Price, Jr., the 1955 film One Way Ticket to Hell was an extreme cheapie filmed without dialogue, which relied on an off-screen narrator. As far as I can determine (and I have searched), this film is the only one which Price ever made in any capacity. It has been shown with the title Teenage Devil Dolls. I am not making any of this up. I'm not that good.

As I have an essentially modest tolerance for camp, it was difficult for me to imagine how such a campy send up of such self satirizing material could be more than modestly rewarding. However, there is one thing that can leave limited expectations in the dust, and that is talent.

Talent is available in abundance here. The sharp, witty and resonant book, music and lyrics, the performance of a strong cast led by Kristen Howe, a young singer-actress who exudes enough star power to light up a far larger space, and sure footed, breezily inventive direction combine to provide 12 Miles West with a new musical which is likely to have a bright and long future.

The musical takes place between 1959 and 1961 in a small suburb of Los Angeles. It is the story of teenaged hellion Cassandra Leigh, narrated largely in flashback by police lieutenant David Jason, her obsessive personal police pursuer and would be savior.

Enabled by her alcoholic mother, Cassandra's stepfather (who was played in the original film by Bamlet L. Price, Sr.), has been molesting her since an early age. Although Cassandra has tired of her goody- goody boyfriend Johnnie Adams, she continues to date and eventually marries him in order to get out of her parents' house and meet the members of the disreputable crowd of motorcycle bikers with whom she has fallen in.

Russell, her new punk motorcycling boyfriend, introduces her to marijuana ("the first step to a life of addiction"). Cassandra then becomes involved with the smarmy, evil Latino drug dealer, Chico. I assume Chico is a variant on Cholo Martinez, a role played in the film by Bamlet L. Price, Jr. Chico moves Cassandra along the drug chain by introducing her to heroin and Seconal.

In the second act, Cassandra's lurid downward spiral gains momentum. Her activities expand to drug pushing, lesbianism (see two women making love!), betrayal of fellow criminals, and auto theft and drug smuggling. She experiences sadistic brutality at the hands of a brutal sadistic drug overlord, the violent death of her closest cohorts, and imprisonment. All this is the result of that first puff of marijuana.

At first, Ticket is fun. However, it feels a little thin and unlikely to sustain itself over two acts. Initially, the recorded synthesized musical arrangements sound lifeless and too similar to one another. A couple of songs feel shoehorned in. However, there is a most pleasant surprise quickly in store. The evening proves to have a steadily rising trajectory. The enjoyable pastiche score by Robert Cioffi (doo wop, Latino, pop, even mainstream showtune sounds of the late ‘50s) entertains the ear. In short order, one adjusts to the synthesizer sound, and the arrangements become more varied and lively. The book and lyrics by Drew Taylor soon find the proper tone for the material.

By the second act, the entertainment soars because all hands manage to deliver an extremely witty and densely paced plethora of campy humor while simultaneously preserving a sense of portentous melodrama and decadence. The lurid events feel important and seriously troubling. Ridiculous as the plot is, there is the feel of danger and titillation in the debouched activity at hand. At some level, we are made to be as naïve as the small town audiences to which such films as Ticket were shown 50 and more years ago.

One Way Ticket to Hell is surprisingly and exhilaratingly bold in its sexual imagery. There is crude humor that works! The inmates at the women's prison have a wrestling team with the nickname of "the Beavers," and one of the women gesturing with her hands at her waist offers to show us her mascot.

A delightful moment occurs late in the second act. Goody Johnnie and Russell, now living conjugally, get jobs with the Park Service and tell us, "We're here, we're forest rangers, get used to it".

Eight actors play what I would estimate to be well in excess of 30 roles. Director (company artistic director) Lenny Bart employs male actors in several smaller female roles with good humor and no attempt to hide their true gender. Actors slip in and out of crisscrossing roles with élan. Bart captures the levels and nuances in the writing and augments the work with much physical humor.

Kristen Howe makes a sensational Cassandra. Sassy and impertinent, she conveys the anger, rebellion and heedlessness of Cassandra with true conviction. Howe beautifully employs the character's sarcasm with an intonation that allows her to be extremely funny while maintaining and even sharpening her edge. Although she probably goes for the homerun too often, her singing voice is a true and powerful instrument that propels the evening forward. Her first act finale, "I'm Outta Here," brought to mind Ethel Merman's first act finale in Gypsy.

Also outstanding is Harry Patrick Christian, who in addition to playing Russell, is the menacing, sadistic drug kingpin, Sven. Christian employs perfect timing and an effective gait to both capture and lampoon scary film tough guys. Christian employs a funny-scary accent to solid effect.

Ron Nummi is solid in delivering the mock serious and portentous narration of Lt. Jason. David Rappaport's Chico effectively sends up the old fashioned screen image of the stereotypically dangerous, swarthy non-WASP.

Gavino Olvera as boyfriend Johnnie and Noelle Teagno as Cindy, Cassandra's second act crime partner and female lover, each lend solid support.

Tricia Burr and Paul Mantell as Cassandra's parents capture the self-centered (and worse) parents who have failed their drowning daughter with just the right amount of humor. Burr also is in fine form as the over the top prison warden.

Jessica Parks has designed an evocative set with several playing areas for a variety of locales which features a large screen at a skewed angle on which various locales are projected to produce a cinematic feel.

Edgy, adult and campy, One Way Ticket to Hell is definitely not for small children. However, it is a fresh, solid and satisfying entertainment that adult theatergoers should not miss.

One-Way Ticket to Hellcontinues performances through June 27th, 2004 at 12 Miles West Theatre Company, 488 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042. Box Office: 973-746-7181; On Line:

One-Way Ticket to Hell Book and Lyrics by Drew Taylor; Music by Robert Cioffi; Directed by Lenny Bart. Cast: Kristen Howe (Cassandra Leigh); Ron Nummi (Lt. David Jason); David Rappaport (Chico); Gavino Olvera (Johnnie); Harry Patrick Christian (Russell/Sven); Paul Mantell (Father); Noelle Teagno (Cindy); Tricia Burr (Mother/Warden).

Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey

Bob Rendell

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