How do Wallis's music and lyrics stand up today? This is the question that the producers of Boobs! The Musical set out to answer. Everything about the production suggests that Ruth Wallis is not just a historical curiosity. The treatment resists vintage kitsch and puts a modern spin on these lounge tunes; for example, Wallis's song about a philandering boy named Bill becomes a comment on the Clinton sex scandals. Boobs! also lampoons celebrities like Joan Crawford and Jerry Springer, and the show even tips its hat to Sex and the City. The result is a cross between Capitol Steps and something you'd see at Don't Tell Mama.
To call the show anachronistic is to miss the point. Conceived and written by Steve Mackes & Michael Whaley, directed by Donna Drake, and choreographed by Lawrence Leritz, Boobs! tries to portray Wallis as a woman ahead of her time -- and, for the most part, it succeeds. Some of the modern riffs border on cliché. The production asks us to laugh at another poke at Monica Lewinsky's cigar, but her kneepads bearing presidential insignia are a nice touch. Jerry Springer may be an easy target, but few satirists have portrayed the talk show host as a cloistered nun, as is done here.
Wallis fans looking for in-depth biography will be disappointed. Boobs begins with the creation of the lounge singer: Frankenstein and his hunchback honcho Igor fashion in their laboratory a chanteuser with a perfect pair of... well, you know the title. The first half of the show involves our heroine's various love affairs in the States. The audience meets her closeted would-be husband, a sailor with the largest "dinghy" in the navy, and a boy whose "yo-yo" makes the girls go wild.
The second act continues with some time spent "abroad." (That's the show's pun, not mine.) Ruth Wallis's command of dirty puns would make Sex and the City's Samantha jealous. For the singer's ditty about Italy, the show makes endless references to her perfect "pie." (Get your mind out of the gutter; she's talking about pizza.) When a concerned wife discovers her husband's love of cross-dressing, she sings "Queer Things are Happening to Me."
Little wonder that Wallis came to be a gay icon; after all, she was singing about these topics long before cross-dressers were winning Drama Desk Awards. A poster girl for sexual freedom before the revolution of the 1960s, Wallis came up with frank lyrics before irreverence was as rampant as it is today. One line goes: "I always think of my blushing groom / Whenever I see the pansies bloom." The husband in question enters the stage in an outfit that recalls a collectible issue of Good Housekeeping.
The show draws in the audience with a boundless supply of energy as a cast of talented singers and actors electrify their neon velvet costumes. Kristy Cates's Ruth certainly captures the singer's spirit, and the other performers animate their caricatures with vitality and charisma. Rebecca Young embodies an Italian mama as she protects her "pie" from the lascivious inamorato played by Robert Hunt. Cates, Jenny-Lynn Suckling, and J. Brandon Savage pile on the sandbox sexual tension in the classic "Johnny's Got a Yo Yo" and its rousing reprise, "Johnny's Got the Same Yo Yo."
Costumers Robert Pease and J. Kevin Draves, who seem to be working with heavy budgets and creative carte blanche here; they flood the stage with a sea of handmade velvet jumpsuits, and the fruit basket they place on top of Chiquita's head for a Spanish number almost touches the ceiling. Bobby Harrell's lighting design paints the stage in pastels, while the wigs designed by Corvette give Hairspray a run for its money. The creative team deserves kudos for its sheer commitment to excess.
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