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Elizabeth Ziff, Alyson Palmer, and Amy Ziff
in Betty Rules
(Photo: Jean-Christian Bourcart)
Betty Rules, now at the Zipper Room, is a theatrical bio-musical of the female rock trio Betty. The show's press materials might lead one to expect a tale of three in-your-face gals and their days of rock stardom and debauchery; but, when it comes down to it, these women are more cute and clever than down 'n' dirty. Their journey is that of three talented, hard working, and very neurotic musicians pursuing their dream.

The show is comparable to Hedwig and the Angry Inch in that it's part rock concert, part biographical musical, but it offers none of Hedwig's depth -- nor does it aspire to. Betty Rules is an enjoyable account of the group's rocky, 17-year existence, from its formation in the suburbs of Fairfax, Virginia to its appearances on the touring circuit and at Lilith Fair-like festivals, and on to its near breakup as the three women try to sort out their frustrations with life in the shadows of rock stardom.

Even with nearly two decades worth of challenges behind them -- including pregnancy, abortion, parental sickness and death, romantic woes, and, of course, performing to the occasional jeering crowd -- the women of Betty still have an innocence that helps them to depict the group's formative years. Amy Ziff is the warm, funny, and high-strung den mother of the group, while her sister Elizabeth acts like an angst-filled teenager and Alyson Palmer keeps everyone in check with her sweet centeredness. Though these three women aren't especially gifted actresses (as evidenced by a few short monologues wherein they play other characters), they have an innate sense of theatricality that helps them command the stage, whether they're belting out tunes from their repertoire or recreating scenes from the band's past. (Anyone who doubts the theatricality of their performance style should listen to the version of Stephen Sondheim's "I Never Do Anything Twice" that they offered in the 1992 Sondheim tribute concert at Carnegie Hall.)

But, even at a neat hour-and-a-half, Betty Rules feels a little long. There are more than a few jokes that are on the weak side and, after the first hour, the show seems like it has been needlessly elongated. Though director Michael Greif moves things along speedily from vignette to vignette, there are problems with the show's structure, which jumps back and forth in time so often that it becomes somewhat difficult to track the unfolding fragments of the band's history.

Despite these flaws, the women of Betty -- full of piss and vinegar, and with a store of great songs -- are great fun to hang out with for an evening. Tight vocal harmonies give their music its distinctive sound, which is especially notable in ballads such as the harrowing "Broken." The group's rock-out numbers, though not as distinguished, are also a blast. Alyson plays a funky bass (with some massively long finger nails!) for the group, Elizabeth covers rhythm guitar, and Amy makes some terrific sounds on an electric cello in a few songs. Backing them up are the excellent guitarist Tony Salvatore and drummer Colin Brooks, who add a little testosterone to the show.

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