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James Van Treuren and Mark Baker in Trolls
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
I'll admit that I went into Trolls with fairly low expectations. A new musical with the catch phrase "Is life gay after 40?" didn't seem to hold much promise. As expected, the book is slim, the characters stereotypical, and the music derivative -- yet the show is oddly entertaining.

Trolls is set in 1998, in West Hollywood. Terry (Mark Baker) is hosting a memorial pot-luck gathering for his dear friend Boomie (Dale Radunz), who died of a heart attack. As friends and family (as well as Boomie's ghost) gather together, they share reminiscences of good times, ponder what it means to grow old within the youth-obsessed gay culture, and celebrate the bonds of friendship.

For those unfamiliar with gay parlance, a "troll" is a derogatory term for an older, often unattractive gay male. The word has a predatory connotation, implying that "trolls" often go after much younger men. Here, the label is used ironically: The aging men in the play lament that, as they get older, they become invisible in youth-oriented gay bars. In the title song, they sing: "We're the creepy, tired, and sleepy trolls! / Always groping, always hoping trolls!" Even the tall, muscular Phillip (Christian Whelan) obsesses over his losing battle with age, particularly his thinning hair and the wrinkles on his face. The only under-30 attendee of Boomie's memorial service is Blane (Bram Heidinger), a former hustler whom Boomie helped reform.

Some of the laughs that the play generates are surely unintentional. While the show has a few witty one-liners, there's also some bad dialogue and some corny inspirational speeches by book writer-lyricist Bill Dyer; these are probably meant to be sincere, but they come across as hilariously overwrought. It was extremely difficult for this reviewer to keep from busting a gut when Blane, joined by Boomie's ghost, launched into a motivational speech paying tribute to gay men of the past: "You represent a great heritage," says Blane, quoting Boomie. "You were the greatest philosopher of ancient times. You conquered the world and they called you Great. You painted the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa. You composed Swan Lake." It goes on -- and, for added emphasis, the speech is printed in the program!

I also assume that I wasn't supposed to laugh -- and cringe -- at the horrifying (mis)representation of the only non-white character, Juan, played by the suspiciously non-Latino-looking Albert Insinnia. The actor adopts a really bad accent for the role, and his imitation of queeny mannerisms is extremely forced. (The Terry character is just as queeny if not more so, but Mark Baker's flamboyant portrayal seems much more grounded in reality.)

Structurally, the musical is unsound. There's no big opening number, unless you want to count Terry singing along with a recording of "The Trolley Song" while cleaning his apartment prior to the arrival of his guests. Most of the songs in Trolls are not well-integrated with the show's book. To make things worse, all of the accompanying music is pre-recorded and seems to emanate from a speaker off stage left; suffice it to say that the volume balance between the singers and the music is rarely right.

On the positive side, John Hoshko's musical staging is often quite campy and delightful -- not in every number, but certainly enough to make you smile. Dick DeBenedictis's music won't win any awards and relies heavily on repeated melodies, but it is nevertheless serviceable. The disco number "Work It!" samples the refrain from "It's Raining Men" to good effect, while "Back in the Good Old Days" is a vaudeville-inspired song and dance routine performed by Michael (James Van Treuren) and Terry. It's the musical highlight of the show.

Van Treuren is consistently engaging. Whelan delivers the most emotionally grounded speech in the show as he laments the fact that he's never found the right guy. (The speech itself is overblown, but Whelan makes it work.) Barry McNabb, as the transgender character Jo, has a fabulous stage presence and gets to wear an assortment of gorgeous gowns (costume design is by Karl A. Ruckdeschel). Unfortunately, McNabb's singing voice is weak; when soloing, he can barely be heard over the canned music.

Director Pamela Hall overemphasizes the melodramatic qualities of the script but keeps the action lively. I can't honestly say that Trolls is any good, but some portions of it are so bad that you can't help but laughing, while others are genuinely engaging. If you attend, check your critical faculties at the door and you just might have a good time.

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