Barbara & Scott review two funny shows (What in the World, South Pathetic) and two dreary ones (The Mysteries, Holly Penfield at Don't Tell Mama).
The show is titled What in the World -- and why in the world would anyone not enjoy this clever skewering of trends, people, and events in the news? The catchy music and fresh, witty lyrics are courtesy of the award-winning Mr. Rick Crom. The playful musical direction is the work of John McMahon. And the show is dynamically directed by Collette Black, who has her talented four-person cast whip through the material at mach (or is that "mock?") speed, resulting in explosions of laughter that might be called comic booms.
As in any revue, some songs are better than others here; that being said, the ratio of gems to lumps of coal is astoundingly high. Every cast member has at least one standout number (if not two), and here are several examples: Christopher Regan does a sendup of Rush Limbaugh, post drug addiction, that is non-stop hilarious. Everything works in this number, from the inspired lyrics (Limbaugh blames all of his right-wing comments on the drugs he was taking) to the kinetic staging, and Regan's performance is extraordinary. Eadie Scott does a Liza Minnelli impression that is stunning; she's even better than the material, and that's saying a lot. In one of the show's more elaborate musical skits, Peter Pan (John Flynn) gives some desperately needed practical advice to Michael Jackson (Kelly Howe). The tone and attitude of the actors, not to mention the writing, is priceless.
Fans of Crom should know that the show -- which originated as a cabaret act -- includes "Denial," a brilliant piece of musical comedy material that's deservedly popular on the nightclub circuit. In a bit of fair play, the entire cast gets to sing it! Scheduled for an open-ended run at the John Houseman Studio Theatre, What in the World not only continues the tradition of the musical comedy revue, it has given the genre a definite glow.
Comic Does a Standup Job
Rick Crom has been busy: In addition to his featured role in Urinetown (original cast) and writing What in the World, he was also the dramaturg for yet another smart and funny piece of work, South Pathetic. A comic chronicle of standup comedian Jim David's misadventures in directing A Streetcar Named Desire for a community theater in a small Southern town, this one-man show written by and starring David is a testament to the fact that every person in the world has his own unique story. David found some great stories in the real-life characters he met in Thermal City, North Carolina -- and he not only tells those tales, he acts them out with comic elan.
Mixing the sharp satire of Waiting for Guffman with a bit of tenderness for these loveable theatrical rubes, David spins his way through the show, getting laughs that aren't at the expense of his characters but, rather, at the comic blundering of humanity. There's much warmth in his mockery.
The night we saw South Pathetic at the Revelation Theater -- a venue that's much more of a work in progress than the play -- the lighting board refused to work. Rather than cancel, David performed the entire show minus more than 70 lighting cues and effects. In the purest sense, we witnessed real theater that night as he rose to the challenge and gave a bravura turn.
South Pathetic only played five scheduled performances last week but it clearly deserves to have an extended run -- and, as far as we're concerned, it can be performed either with or without lights.
Not everything we saw recently was funny -- although the next act we're going to describe was supposed to be. Holly Penfield clearly intended to be taken as a cross between Ute Lemper and...what? Squeaky Fromme? But Penfield's self-absorbed brand of musical comedy, complete with riding crop, was neither funny nor particularly musical when we cringed through her show at Don't Tell Mama.
Apparently, she was quite the rage -- and we mean that literally -- in an earlier, darker incarnation in the U.K. In her current show, she was clad at one point in a straightjacket. Actually, her costuming was the highlight of her act; Penfield's antics may go over better across the pond but she came across as painfully broad on West 46th Street.
It's a Mystery to Us
Now let us pray for something more entertaining. Perhaps The Mysteries at the Classic Stage Company? No; this series of Biblical tales told in high theatrical style leaves our prayers unanswered. Slow, boring, and unevenly acted, it rarely sparks.
The recent benefit concert of Stephen Schwartz's musical Children of Eden was a fine example of how the Bible can serve as the basis for a theater piece that's rich, rewarding, and theatrical. This CSC production certainly has artistic pretensions, but the result is less artistic than pretentious.