Clown Bar

The surreal off-Broadway hit pitches its tent in Pasadena.

The cast of Clown Bar at Pasadena Playhouse's redwhite+bluezz.
The cast of Clown Bar at Pasadena Playhouse's redwhite bluezz.
(© courtesy of Pasadena Playhouse)

If you love your clown tales to conclude with a stage filled with more dead bodies than Hamlet, then Clown Bar is the musical comedy film noir spoof for you. An oddity that melds sociopath clowns, satirical torch songs, and off-color humor, Clown Bar is a dining-entertainment happening that few will have experienced before. Original songs, far-from-original jokes, and unexpected violence pepper this evening at the redwhite bluezz restaurant.

The show's conceit is that an evening of cabaret, performed by gangster clowns, is interrupted by an honest cop avenging his brother's death. The audience just happens to be eating their Bibb salad, watching the string of songs, when these fatal events occur around them. This lends a sense of unpredictability to the surroundings. No one is sure how many clowns will have confetti blown through their sternum by time dessert arrives.

Audiences enter the show while still in line. Clowns with shotguns harass — sexually and physically — the guests as they wait for their tables. The sad-sack emcee, Dusty (Amir Levi), starts off the show screaming at the audience that they're not welcome, while sheepishly begging them to understand these are merely the songs' lyrics, not his sentiment. The songs in Act 1 introduce many of the characters, such as the prostitute clown Petunia (Erin Holt), the trampy gangster's moll (Emily Goss), the trigger-happy, hyper-sexual Shotgun (Esteban Andres Cruz), and the muscle, Giggles (Chairman Barnes). Halfway through Act 2, the musical numbers are interrupted by former clown Happy (Shawn Parsons), now a cop investigating the crime world of clowns. His kid brother Timmy (Joe Fria), a drug-addled, woefully unfunny clown dressed as the tragic Pagliacci, had been murdered on this specific stage – his tape outline still spills onto the proscenium.

This parody of Fritz Lang or Edgar G. Ulmer 1940s noir thrillers is aptly handled. Though the transition between the cabaret section and the melodrama is jarring, the jokes pull the audience into this detour. Director Jaime Robledo balances the absurd elements so that even when the story goes grim, there is still a sense of dark humor and a reminder that nothing should be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, like a skit from Saturday Night Live, the detective story runs longer than the laughs by a good 20 minutes. After a while, the audience hungers for those humorous Tom Lehrer-esque songs to return.

Writer Adam Szymkowicz has an obvious love for the pulp fiction of the '40s. By recasting stock characters as clowns, he has bastardized the familiar with the deranged, giving a silly effect. However, some of the humor could be sharper and after a while, the crassness gets tiresome.

The cast utilizes very dry wit to convey both the trappings of the noir archetypes and the lunacy of being the most hateful clowns in the universe. Erin Holt stands out as the bubbly Petunia armed with a squeaky voice, sexual innuendos and a girl Friday sensibility. The flop sweat dripping from Levi's brow as he tries to sell his humor properly expresses the desperation of an unloved master of ceremonies. Parsons is appropriately stiff in the Dana Andrews-type role while Goss makes a sultry femme fatale. The unnerving appearance of the helium-voiced ringleader Bobo (Bruno Oliver) will send shivers down the spine. Mandi Moss's frantic balloon twisting is a comedy highlight.

The songs are the show's winning component. The tunes by Adam Overett, Richard Levinson and Michael Simmons are peppy, while the lewd lyrics by Overett, Levinson and Szymkowicz contain clever rhymes, making the clash of the two funnier.

Linda Muggeridge's costumes are vibrantly colored, and off-kilter. They are not the clown suits one would find in the family-safe world of Ringling Brothers but rather in the murderous world of Killer Klowns From Outer Space. The makeup, designed by Mandi Moss, is also broad and devious. Shotgun's eyes appear to bleed; many of the painted grins are maniacal; and the way the Timmy's classic white face gets smeared as his drug addiction persists is harrowing.

Clown Bar tickets include a delicious pre-fixe of short ribs, fish, or risotto that will have audiences returning to redwhite bluezz for future dinners. If one doesn't mind fake blood or confetti landing in their cocktails, Clown Bar is an amusing diversion.

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Clown Bar

Closed: January 29, 2015