By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The hot tomato juicing up the new comedy Pico de Gallo: The Return of the Queen is one "Chula Cholula," a spicy little slice of womanhood who just happens to be played by a man, Oscar Contreras. Chula is a favorite recurring character in shows written and performed by the Martice Enterprisesacting troupe, for which Contreras writes, acts and directs. Their latest manic menu of sketches, the funniest and best written by this company yet, finds Miss Chula, a glamazon who speaks in rapid-fire Spanglish, preparing for her wedding.
She swears she's still a virgin. "Down there I've never been touched by a man," Chula announces, pointing south of the border. "Just like Jodie Foster."
The wedding theme weaves together two acts' worth of vignettes featuring Contreras and the other four members of the cast--Rhianna Mack, Amanda Doskocil, J.R. Ramirez and Walter Fauntleroy. Between scenes, Chula choo-choos out in high heels to offer nuptial updates and to share favorite recipes for love. She also waxes comedic on unrelated topics, including the stunts on Mexican Fear Factor: "Eat bull testicles? That's dinner. Try sending a 250-pound mother of nine running through Neiman Marcus without getting arrested."
The audience joins the act when Chula needs assistance. And "no" is never an answer when Chula asks for help. She'll totter down the steps from the stage and grab whomever she wants.
Like Tex-Mex cuisine, sketch comedy succeeds only when all the ingredients are fresh and expertly prepared. Pico de Gallo is that, even if it does get off to a choppy start. Act one finally kicks into high comedy with Rhianna Mack's monologue as "Fajita Pita Jackson," an infomercial huckstress hawking techniques for increasing booty size. Mack, who's as thin as a knife blade, reveals a spectacularly enhanced backside, which she shakes seven ways from Sunday. Fall down funny.
Act two is so much stronger it feels like a whole new show, with material that's more writerly and at times surprisingly poignant. Poor Chula has been left at the altar during intermission. "I'm sure my runaway groom will turn himself in to the authorities--just like that white girl," she says. "Our love was built on honesty, just like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes."
Fauntleroy appears as Chula's gay wedding planner. With the event on hold, he launches into his life story in a sketch titled "Girly Girl" (written by Contreras and Marco Rodriguez). It begins as a bitch-slap at black gay men who operate on the down-low, but goes on to reveal what it feels like to be an out and proud black man who prefers Latino lovers. "I can't resist a little salsa on my collard greens," says the character, played by Fauntleroy with equal parts wrist-flapping queerocity and genuine vulnerability.
At the end, the ensemble regroups in Greek chorus drag to bolster Chula's sagging self-esteem and to go into a "You know you're at a Mexican wedding when..." routine. (As in, when the reception hall doubles as a check-cashing place.) The show ends with a rousing performance of, what else, "Proud Mary."
The Pico players peck away at cultural, racial and sexual stereotypes by putting them right out there for the public to nibble on. The Return of the Queen is a royal hoot.
The mingling creates a sexy, leather-bar mood, with boys wearing S&M leashes and girls dressed as even sluttier versions of Britney Spears' nymphets, if that's even possible. Then the drummer hits that long roll on the snare, the cymbals crash, the show begins and the fun is over.
Two good performances by supporting actors--Gary Taggart as the sweet Jewish grocer, Herr Schultz, and Lindsey Holloway as the winsome prostitute, Fräulein Kost--aren't enough to keep this Cabaret cooking. The leads--Jennifer Green as flighty chanteuse Sally Bowles, and Clint Carter as Cliff, the bisexual American ex-pat writer she shacks up with--wear their roles like too-small shoes. Carter appears to have strolled over from Brigadoon. He's bland and expressionless, stirring up zero chemistry whether kissing Sally or a cute chorus boy. When he's not onstage, you don't miss him. When he is onstage, you have to remind yourself who he is again.
Green, a standout in WaterTower's Spitfire Grill and Company, seems all at sea trying a British accent and flicking cig ashes with green-painted nails. You can tell that beneath the war paint and bad wig, she's just not that kind of girl. Green can sing, but emotionally she gets nowhere near the Weltschmerz of "Mein Herr," "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret," Kander and Ebb's now-familiar torch songs. For that, as if it needs mentioning, watch Liza in her Oscar-winning performance as Sally in the 1972 Bob Fosse movie.
Cabaret, now nearly 40 years old (the John Van Druten play is older, as are the Christopher Isherwood stories that inspired it all), is one of the few works of American musical theater that suffers by comparison to its subsequent movie version (lately Broadway's been doing it the other way around, turning old movies into new musicals). For film, Fosse stripped the show to its essence, changing the old Jewish grocer into gorgeous Marisa Berensen and keeping the focus on Sally. Fosse also wisely dropped the dreary subplot about Sally's landlady, Fräulein Schneider (played at WaterTower by overly fidgety Pam Dougherty), and he eliminated the Fräulein's songs with Schultz, which derail the show's momentum. Watching Cabaret onstage, you keep wondering where Sally Bowles went and why these two geezers keep singing about pineapples (the grocer brings food gifts to the landlady).
The character everyone remembers from the movie--the creepy Kit Kat Club Emcee played by Joel Grey onscreen and made even creepier by actor Alan Cumming in director Sam Mendes' 1998 Broadway revival--has no relationship with anyone else onstage and speaks only to the audience. But he's the life force of the show, the source of erotic energy. He's the messenger of impending doom as the Nazi presence grows more menacing in act two. And he's comic relief, taking vaudevillian turns in "The Money Song," "Two Ladies" and the haunting "If You Could See Her," which uses a gorilla costume to get across Hitler's attitude toward mixed marriage.
WaterTower director Terry Martin, aiming for Marlene Dietrich's androgyny in his Emcee, cast Ashley Puckett Gonzales. Ach du lieber! She's a disaster, vocally and physically. Stuffed into leather short-shorts and a black bra, Gonzales is a bleached blond bratwurst bursting out of its casing. You'd think wearing costumes this tight would facilitate the high notes, but no luck there either. Her voice is as fried as her hair, poor dear.
The set for the show is spectacular, so it's too bad that except for the dancers' revealing outfits in the opening number, costume designer Michael Robinson's duds for this Cabaret are all duds. The ladies' flouncy dresses say Banana, not Weimar, Republic. Sally comes off like a dowdy schoolmarm in sensible pumps. Where's that divine decadence, dahling?
By the time the Nazi flags drop and Sally's wailed her last wail over Elsie from Chelsea, we should have something emotionally invested in these colorful characters and the fate that awaits them under Hitler's rule. But that just doesn't happen with this production. We never quite make it out of Addison and into the Berlin of the Jazz Age. Instead of building to a terrifying roar, this Cabaret winds down to a sort of empty whimper. Um, Auf Wiedersehen, y'all.