By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Home to many a forgettable, popcorn-tossing, low-comedy melodrama, Pocket Sandwich Theatre now owns bragging rights to something pretty cool: the premiere of the first professional production written and directed by Brent Black. At 21, the kid from Irving is still a year away from his drama degree at the University of Oklahoma. The Pocket has produced his musical revue, Shades of Gray, two hours of poppin' fresh, get-down funny entertainment aimed right at the post-adolescent, college-age customers theaters find it hardest to get through their doors.
Mixing bouncy, sunny melodies with rude, witty lyrics, the show's 13 musical vignettes play like a junior Avenue Q sans puppets. It's a "hodgepodge," the bouncy opening number explains, a baker's dozen R-rated short stories that are "original in a postmodern way."
Original and a half. Write what you know, young writers are told. Brent Black writes about things he and his just-legal compadres know. It's territory plenty of TV and movie writers are mining but not many other musical theater composers. Drugs and video games figure prominently in his themes, but Black also muses on the ups and downs of courtship, sex and fidelity. Some of it is goofy and awkward, some downright sentimental and gooey. Several vignettes scream school talent show. But for a first musical by a baby composer, it's as cute as all get-out. The cast of eight gives it better than the old college try.
Black's approach to musical comedy, like his way with a melody, lacks sophistication, for sure. But Shades of Gray, commenting wryly on the obsessions and quirks of its target audience while making sport of tired mainstream fare such as Cats, hints at Black's potential. With a few more years on him and more professional theatrical experience on his résumé, Black might be capable of turning out the next Rent (if he's ambitious) or, at the very least, something like Little Shop of Horrors.
The kid knows from funny. The number that first got the attention of Pocket Sandwich owner Joe Dickinson is "Inmates," a love ballad sung between convicts, both male. Black sent Dickinson the song on an MP3 file, along with a pitch for the show. Dickinson listened, laughed and called Black with an offer for a five-week run. Here's how it goes (sung onstage by Kenneth Sparks and Denton Waddell):
I don't care what anyone says, you're the only one
You make doing time fun, and until my time is done
I'm your lover, I'm your friend,Yours till the end
You make prison wonderful and rich, oh...I'm your bitch!
When I was first convicted for poaching endangered fish
I was scared to go to prison and said if I had just one wish
I'd wish for a companion, someone written in the stars
Somebody to help me deal with life behind bars.
I can still remember the first day that we met
In the cafeteria, and I don't think I'll ever forget
Your day-glo orange jumpsuit and your "I love Mom" tattoo
You let me share your green beans...And that's why I love you!
You are truly someone that I cannot live without
And if you ever get in trouble, don'tcha know I'll bail you out
I never thought I'd find the one, I never had a wife
But I'll love you forever...Or at least 30 years to life!
Maybe not Sondheim but arrestingly funny. It was the opening night showstopper.
Cutie-pie Aaron Kozak gets three of the other zany numbers in the show. In "My Magical Place," wearing a hospital gown and a slap-happy look, he delivers a dreamy ode to hallucinogens, including mushrooms, acid, peyote and NyQuil. The highlight of the first of three acts (Pocket wedges two intermissions into every show for purposes of drink-slinging) is Kozak's performance of "The Grand Theft Auto 3 Song," which speaks to the connection between a boy and his PlayStation. He and his thumb calluses fantasize about someday having a pretty "Player 2" by his side. "Our love of simulated crime/Will stand the test of time," he sings. In comes Carly Waddell, who passes the game-skills test by crazily singing and dancing the game's key moves:
Carly: R2, R2, L1, R1, Left, Down, Right, Up, Left, Down, Right, Up!
Aaron: Not bad. Riot!
Carly: Down, Up, Left, Up, X, R1, R2, L2, L1!
Both: Full armor! R2, R2, L1, L2, Left, Down, Right, Up, Left, Down, Right, Up!
Aaron: Wow. Your wanted level just went WAY up.
That may sound like gibberish to the AARP-agers in the crowd. But Black can turn right around and pump out the old-fashioned torch song "Bad to You," vamped up with a red boa by a pretty Lee Jamison. She sings:
You'll meet me in a bar, talk to me till three
Amazed with my straightforwardness and practicality
And though I seem the perfect girl when love is fresh and new
I'm gonna be so bad to you!
Our romance will unfold, unassuming and benign
That is until we do the do and then your soul is mine.
Forget about your best friend, he'll just have to be number two