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Stephanie Kurtzuba, Todd Alan Johnson,
Jeff Skowron, and Kim Cea in Newsical
(Photo © Gabe Evans)
In the late 1960s, when Julius Monk announced that he'd no longer be doing satirical revues at the Plaza-9 boite created for him, he explained that he couldn't compete with television for topicality. Since late night talk-show hosts were cracking jokes based on the day's headlines and the boob-tube show That Was the Week That Was had arrived and then stuck around for awhile, it was obvious to Monk that the days of the current-events club revue were numbered.

Yet some people are still intent on keeping up the good fight -- none more persistently than Rick Crom, whose Newsical is the latest edition of his continuing intimate-room, song-and-sketch poke at politics and society. He continues to court the club-hopping crowd in a decidedly uncourtly fashion. Crom, himself a delightful scarecrow of a performer, keeps his eyes peeled regularly for bloated developments to deflate and puffed-up personalities to puncture. A facility for rhyme and melody are his sword and cudgel.

Three cheers for the man's determination and skill; if anyone locally is scoring a high percentage of direct satirical hits, he's the fellow. But Crom has also become a handy illustration of Julius Monk's clairvoyant argument. The first example in Newsical comes just after revuers Kim Cea, Todd Alan Johnson, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Jeff Skowron have explained in their opening number that hot-off-the-presses commentary is on the way. Out pops Johnson, quick-changed into a John Kerry wig and employing mechanical gestures to note that the Democratic candidate is a campaigning stiff. But what do you know? Within the last few days and throughout the first debate of this election siege, Kerry has given the lie to what's become a cliché description of him. Crom tends to insert and remove sketches and songs from his shows during their runs -- he could be penning a new Kerry send-up this very minute -- but the number went off as described above at a recent performance, and it seemed s-o-o-o five minutes ago.

This is not to say that Crom doesn't ring the bell from time to time in Newsical. He does, with pieces that have more of a shelf-life and broader social-psychological commentary. There's a very funny speech given by Johnson as a straight man who supports gay marriage; okay, the monologue has a trite punchline about wishing misery on married gays concomitant with the misery suffered by married straights, but the premise is strong. A song-and-dance routine that features Skowron as New Jersey Governor James McGreevey retains freshness, although its sell-by date may be fast approaching. Bringing Jack, Jackie, and Rose Kennedy on from heaven to size up Arnold Schwarzenegger as a new family member is another example of Crom at his drollest. And there's something pertinent in Cea's solo about a feminist whose husband was made over by the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy gents and now isn't recognizable as the man she married. Cea also connects with "Too Much Botox," but this number has been one of Crom's reliables for a some time. So has his wryly hilarious "Denial," which closes this show and which has highlighted many other performers' shows for a number of seasons.

In the revue, directed at just the right pace by Donna Drake and designed with efficient practicality by Peter P. Allburn, Crom admits by implication that his material is short on the latest news flashes. In an extended second-act segment devoted to people and things that we should wonder about ever having held in awe, he ribs Anna Nicole Smith (Kurtzuba in frowsy blonde curls) and Michael Jackson (Cea in a Prince Valiant hairpiece and bright-red cadet jacket). In a little ditty, Rush Limbaugh (Johnson again) suggests that his liberal-bashing was the drugs talking. Also lacking Crom-worthiness is the first-act closer, "Martha Stewart: The Musical." It falls short of cogency on Stewart's prison matriculation; she's shown in stripes, but the jokes include no "this just in" spin.

One aspect of the show is timeless, however: its use of the revue genre as occasion for up-and-coming performers to show their versatility. Newsical does this in spades. Johnson, a big fellow with a bald head, is marvelously convincing as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Doctor Phil, and other appealingly silly characters. Cea submerges her attractive, tall self into a Barbra Streisand insistent on offering her political opinions, and she warbles Crom's mock threnodies with lilt. Kurtzuba is a riot when singing about the woes of online romance -- a topic covered earlier this year in The Joys of Sex, which Kurtzuba did what she could to brighten -- and her gasping, giggling, loopy Liza Minnelli would have been a great audition piece for The Boy From Oz. Jeff Skowron, thin and personable, is good as McGreevey and gallant as the tiger who mauled Roy of Siegfried and Roy.

The four versatiles and director Drake do solid work. So solid they could have toiled for Julius Monk way back when. They make Newsical a pleasant reminder of the old days, even when it could be a more barbed commentary on the present.

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