Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot follows the onstage shenanigans and backstage drama of Betty D. Licious' cooking show, "Cookin's a Drag." As their five-year anniversary show is about to begin, Betty is frantic as not only is the show airing live for the first time but it's also Betty's 50th birthday, and she's feeling old, tired, replaceable, and extremely vulnerable. Bradley, the show's musical director and Betty's longtime friend, has arranged a special surprise for Betty. But, when one of Betty's three backup boys overhears Bradley talking mysteriously to the show's sponsor, it seems Bradley may be up to no good and what he's planning could spell doom for Betty.
Based on a television pilot by Scott Weiner, the book by Michael Barnard, Vincent VanVleet, and D. Scott Withers interweaves and introduces a lot of elements. Some of these work, but many aren't fleshed out very well, aren't appropriately introduced, or simply disappear almost as quickly as they are appear. For example, maybe I missed it in the frantic pace of the production, but at the start we are told that this live show is a pilot for a new Food Network TV series, but nothing is ever said again about that, especially when the live taping goes majorly off the rails. Also, there are several references to their unconventional sponsor Wonder Wipes, which also never truly comes into play, and we never get that much information about the history of Betty's show or why it's been so successful.
Some bits go on too long or are repetitive and, while the characters are fun, upbeat, and incredibly charming and there are some good jokes and visual gags, the show is truly only slightly amusing, and overly long with an opening sequence that is unfocused and chaotic. I understand they are trying to portray the frantic atmosphere of a live TV show taping, but at many times it appears that there are two many cooks in the kitchen as far as the contributors go as, even though the show is fun and the ending is charming, it's lacking a clear through story. Some editing and clarifying a few things would make it much sharper.
Clint Edwards wrote the music for the songs and, along with Barnard, VanVleet, and Withers, wrote the lyrics, but several have words that don't lie squarely within the song, with some phrasing and several rhymes that feel somewhat forced. Fortunately, Betty's act one closing anthem, "Life Into Life," and her second act song about her past, "Anaheim," are very good tunes that help flesh out the character and add a big dose of heart to the insanity of the show.
Withers is lovely as Betty and infuses her with an appropriate mix of high strung gestures and frenzied facial expressions to portray the excitable drag queen who is uncertain about her future and questions her past, though from Withers' nuanced portrayal we also see that, underneath, Betty has a huge amount of strength. Line delivery is excellent, with perfectly placed pauses to make sure that lines like "ever since I was a little boy, I pretended to be a little girl" are delivered with humor. Toby Yatso does well as the somewhat underwritten antagonist of the piece, Bradley, and Terey Summers is fine, though occasionally too broad, in a few supporting parts. As Betty's three backup boys, Eddie Maldonado is humorously over dramatic as Bicep, Logan Scott Mitchell is hilariously ditzy as Glute, and Wesley J. Barnes is utterly charming at Tricep.
Barnard's direction does well in instilling the production with a frantic pace while ensuring the few serious moments of the show resonate and are also heartwarming. His cast all sparkle and shine with charm and humor. His staging makes good use of the three playing areas of Douglas Clarke's bright and colorful set. Jeff Kennedy's music direction is solid as is the small onstage band, and the choreography by Michael Jenkinson is fun and varied. Connie Furr's creative costumes and Terre Steed's superb wig and makeup designs make certain that Betty and all of the characters look incredibly good with many funny touches and colorful embellishments. Daniel Davisson's lighting and Dave Tempy's clear sound design are both excellent.
While Cookin's a Drag isn't entirely a drag of a show, as the characters are fun and the cast and creative elements are very enjoyable, it could use a little more time simmering on the developmental stove in order to make a more appetizing meal of a musical.
Cookin's a Drag, through May 28, 2019, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Book by Michael Barnard, Vincent VanVleet, and D. Scott Withers
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.