Fifteen of the 19 9/11 hijackers were citizens of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a sobering fact considering that country is allegedly one of America's closest allies in the Middle East. How have average Saudis come to hate the United States with such passion? Unfortunately, you won't be able to answer that question any better after seeing Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a world-premiere musical comedy from Monk Parrots at 59E59 Theaters. With a book and lyrics by alliterative director Luke Landric Leonard and music by Peter Stopschinski (who composed last year's Bum Phillips All-American Opera), Welcome to the KSA is about as geopolitically enlightening as Disney's Aladdin.
The story follows Hank (a handsome Joey LePage) and Tina (the intense Jessica Dean), two Americans who move to Saudi Arabia in 1981 when Hank gets a job with Aramco (the Arab-American Oil Company). Hank works with Abdullah (Christopher Michael McLamb), a rich Saudi man with four wives and a mysterious niqab-wearing daughter named Zillah (Ruthy Froch). Their next-door neighbors are swinging British expats Dick (John Smiley) and Fanny (Sarah Grace Sanders), who manage to remain well-lubricated in the face of the Kingdom's ban on alcohol. Tina is haunted by Randy (a menacing John Gasper), a pasty pajama-clad misanthrope who looks like Max from Where the Wild Things Are after a run through the washer and dryer. Over the following decade, they all try to make their lives work in this strange land flowing with oil and intolerance.
The plight of expatriate Americans working for Aramco and living in a gated community is one of the least interesting stories one could tell about Saudi Arabia, a country in which 20 percent of the population is made up of migrants (few of them Americans). By focusing on American and European foreign workers (who are not subject to the abusive kafala system that governs their Asian and African counterparts), this musical feels like something of a whitewash despite its seemingly harsh criticism of the Kingdom and its sacred cows.
Or should I say camels? Several of the numbers are backed up by a chorus of farting camels referred to as "the descendants of Abraham." While this is meant to be transgressive, it's really just embarrassingly sophomoric. As if to hammer this point home, Leonard punctuates nearly every scene with bad stand-up comedy, which the actors deliver into mics placed strategically around the stage. Leonard seems to be trying to say something about the radical shifts in Saudi society spurred on by an increasingly conservative Wahhabi theology, but he is often undermined by his inability to resist cheap jokes.
Stopschinski's music, with its forced synthesizer knockoff '80s pop melodies, is fitting for a show that often feels like a low-budget promotional movie for Aramco HR gone horribly awry. Hank and Tina take us through their immigrant journey, singing little factoids along the way:
We learned a few things
The don'ts and the dos
She must cover up
We can't be Jews.
That's one of the more clever lyrics in a show that repeats its banality with the unyielding fervor of an imam at prayer (additional lyrics by Katie Pearl). In a song about the Arabian moonshine siddiqui, we're told no fewer than 10 times it will "get your mind freaky."
A siddiqui-induced dream ballet featuring Satan in a red speedo serving hors d'oeuvres might just be the most awkward first act finale off-off-Broadway: Following the final note, the house lights come up on a pile of bodies. Under Leonard's habitually clumsy staging, the actors are left to slowly crawl off stage as the audience wonders aloud if it's halal to get up and go to the bathroom.
The set (designed by Leonard and Julien Gardair) is festooned with beige cutouts of nondescript shapes that do nothing to further the story. Alison Heryer outfits the whole cast in appropriately unflattering costumes (with the exception of Sanders, who looks like a lifeguard on Baywatch). The entire cast seems to be treading water, doing their best not to drown in this sea of unfunny clichés. At very least, Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia succeeds in being stylistically authentic: a terrible musical about a terrible place.