I bring up Wicked because a low-budget musical titled Bingo is now in our Manhattan midst and I'm reluctant to dismiss it as the claptrap it pretty much is. That's because the show may well provide for middle-aged women what Wicked offers their prepubescent and adolescent daughters. Its appeal may even extend beyond the kind of women who mob church basements on Bingo nights and who will be cheered to learn that, during the course of this calculated enterprise, they get to play two traditional rounds of their beloved game. (They should be warned that the cash prizes are only $3 and $5, which seems pretty chintzy when you consider that the show's tickets are priced at $65. But wait: The popcorn is gratis.)
Bingo, you see, is about female bonding -- as its opening number, "Girls' Night Out," makes perfectly clear. It's also about rifts in women's relationships. Vern (Liz McCartney), Honey (Liz Larsen), and Patsy (Janet Metz) have been a bingo-playing triumvirate for a couple of decades. They'd once been a quadrumvirate, with Bernice (Klea Blackhurst) as the fourth member of their Bingo-centric clique. But one fatal night 15 years before the show's action begins, described in a series of flashbacks, Vern and Bernice clashed over a disputed Bingo card. As a result, Bernice packed up her dauber and left the group forever.
During the Bingo session to which the audience is treated, a newcomer who introduces herself as Alison (Beth Malone) immediately lets the audience know that she's Bernice's daughter, but she doesn't want the keyed-up gang to learn her secret quite yet. She's come to the game to decide whether she can inform caustic Vern, dim-witted Honey, and earnest Patsy that Bernice is dying and needs a blood transfusion. While this plot twist gets untwisted, a few other incidents occur, such as Honey making a play for the hunky numbers-caller Sam (Patrick Ryan Sullivan), Patsy revealing just how immersed she is in Bingo superstitions, and Vern flaunting her overbearing personality.
The show is just as cheesy as some people regard actual Bingo nights to be. (Eric Renschler's set, dominated by an out-sized Bingo board lit by John Viesta, glories in the cheesiness.) But Bingo concerns an issue with which almost every woman (and man) will identify: Petty disagreements can escalate into seemingly irreconcilable rifts between longtime friends. Savvy attendees will quickly intuit that things will improve, at least somewhat, before the end of the show; creators Michael Heitzman, Ilene Reid, and David Holcenberg see to that.
Doesn't this sound like just the ticket for girls of a certain age who are having their own night out, much as Steel Magnolias was during its lengthy Off-Broadway run? Will they care that the show's jokes are lame? For instance, Patsy warns the ladies about "bad karma," to which Honey replies, "Don't get the karma, get the Italian sausage." When Bernice shows up in flashback, her idea of swearing is to say, "H-E-double hockey sticks." Ugh!
And will the ladies care that rhymes are disdained in Bingo's songs? For example, "helps" is rhymed with "yourself" and "earthy" is rhymed with "MacMurphy." The musical numbers are sometimes shoe-horned so tightly into the book that they cry for air. The hands-down audience favorite -- which has almost nothing to do with the plot -- is "Ratched's Lament," supposedly from an Off-Off-Broadway musical adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in which Alison will soon be appearing. The one really good song, "B4" (a reference to the Bingo number and a pun on the word "before"), is about friendship's better days.
Fortunately, the cast is a bevy of strong voices and funny attitudes. The big-boned McCartney has the force of a nuclear power plant; Larsen, outfitted by costumer Carol Brys in a blonde wig and push-up bra, is as sexy as a Maxim cover; and Blackhurst shows off her factory-whistle voice in two roles. (In addition to Bernice, she plays local actress Marilyn). The others -- including Chevi Colton as the game's tart-tongued operator, Minnie -- also hold their own under Thomas Caruso's direction and Lisa Stevens' choreography, but they aren't enough to make a reviewer who still values polished workmanship shout "Bingo!"