So you’re a joke-meister who wrote for some of the best comedy shows on television only to wash up on the shores of middle-age and find yourself no longer relevant – ergo: unemployed. You go East to write serious drama for the theater, but you’re no O’Neill or Miller, so back you go to Hollywood, hat in hand, in a desperate attempt to pitch a sitcom based on the pope’s rapscallion brother (It’ll be a laugh-riot!).
In the midst of your pitch there’s an earthquake and a goodly portion of the building falls on you. What happens next? Well, what happens next is I Hate Musicals: The Musical, which is receiving its world premiere at the Ivoryton Playhouse. The show is an irreverent satire that takes on Hollywood executives, talent agents, inane TV shows and Broadway musicals while giving a few pokes in the eyes to such icons as Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Sigmund Freud.
Who would come up with such a premise? Well, the show is written by Mike Reiss, who has been writing for The Simpsons for almost three decades, and if you know anything about this ground-breaking animated show, you know that nothing is sacred. Thus, in I Hate Musicals, the satire is broad, the humor often hits below the belt and the show’s musicality is essentially derivative – original music is credited to Walter Murphy but there aren’t many tunes that won’t elicit a: “Wait a minute, isn’t that melody from…?”
Under the direction of James Valletti, the six actors, almost all of whom play multiple roles, cavort and camp it up, much to the delight of the opening night audience, many of whom might associate the goings on with Marx Brothers’ films as much as with the antics of Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa. As for the plot, well, after the seismic disruption there isn’t much that is logically connected, for what we are seeing is a coma-induced phantasmagoria of characters that rise and fall (often to taunt, tease and/or terrorize) in the mind of the comedy writer. As Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, entered a world of magical make-believe after the tornado, so Alvin (Stephen Wallem) enters the world of his somewhat warped mind after the earthquake, complete with a pair of ruby slippers and a dead witch, or is that bitch?
There are some slow moments in this one-act romp when Reiss gets “serious,” or beats the dead horse about how Hollywood turns brilliant writing into crap, but for most of the evening it’s just plain silliness. To get a feel for where Alvin’s mind wanders while in coma-mode we have the multi-talented Amanda Huxtable first playing a bitchy TV executive wearing a nifty pair of red shoes (you just know she’s doomed). After the fall of the building, she reappears as Brie, Alvin’s ex-wife, a somewhat ditzy blonde a la Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls and then, near the end of the show, when Alvin is being judged as to whether he’s worthy of entering heaven (consumption of a Big Mac hamburger is key to the decision – don’t ask), she reappears as the Blessed Virgin Mary, which she plays with a Bronx accent, and then, to top it off, she morphs into Alvin’s mother (Freudian symbolism anyone?).
The rest of the cast, accompanied by Michael Morris working the electronic keyboard, is equally appealing and eagerly willing to sell the lunacy Reiss has given them to work with. Sam Given first appears as a security guard but soon shows his true talent as Jerome, who is so GAY (here Reiss, in typical Simpsons fashion, takes a stereotype and blows it up in your face), and then reappears as a hyperactive Sigmund Freud. Not to be outdone, Ryan Knowles enters as Alvin’s purported father, a pompous English Lit professor who scorns his son’s profession, only to work a quick costume change (of which there are many) and become Natasmi (Who? Not sure? Well, spell it backwards and all will become clear). Will Clark plays Alvin’s actual dad, a real mensch, as well as Jesus (also a real mensch) – it’s with these two characters that Reiss works in some Borscht Belt Jewish jokes. Finally, there’s the ever-reliable R. Bruce Connelly who plays Lee, Alvin’s agent who is currently in Florida with his grandchildren (He’d rather be in LA in an earthquake) but maintains contact with Alvin via phone (“So, how did the meeting go?”) and is finally asked to negotiate with the BVM over Alvin’s eternal destination.
Does most of the evening make any sense? Well, no and yes. If you’re looking for standard dramatic development you’ll be sorely disappointed, but that’s not really the point, because Alvin’s delirium is the frame that allows all of these somewhat bizarre characters to enter and do their “thing.” It’s Saturday Night Live on steroids, a theatrical tradition that harkens back to Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’. You get the set-up, then the earthquake, and then comedic chaos. It has the feel of something Beckett might have written if he had had a sense of humor.
I Hate Musicals: The Musical runs through October 15. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.