By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
With Paul Rudnick'sValhalla, the Uptown Players plunge right into the sticky-sweet center of a gooey comic confection. This company specializes in gay-themed shows, and if this one were any gayer, Elton John could wear it, Tom Cruise could sue it and Liza Minnelli could marry it.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas i> continues through October 29 at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, 214-828-0094.
Playwright Rudnick is the gay Neil Simon, known for rapid-fire quips and outrageous characters. His best-known works for the stage--I Hate Hamlet, Jeffrey and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, a biblical send-up that re-imagined Eden populated by Adam and Steve--aren't as critically embraced as those of that old gay warhorse Terrence McNally, but they are funnier and less formulaic. As a screenwriter, Rudnick's earned hits as a script doctor on The First Wives Cluband Addams Family Values and with his own In & Out. Then there was his remake of The Stepford Wives, which might have worked if it had more gay and less Nicole Kidman.
In Valhalla, directed for Uptown by Andi Allen, Rudnick goes all gay, all the time, setting up dueling biographies of conflicted male characters. Galloping first to center stage in this madcap meander through two centuries is Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, played by B.J. Cleveland as if his ability to draw breath depended on every laugh. Ludwig, a 19th-century monarch obsessed with architecture and The Ring Cycle, begins the play as a precocious 10-year-old prince (Cleveland in a black pageboy wig, transformed into a pintsized Kaye Ballard).
As a teen, Ludwig dons a nun's habit and torments his idiot brother, Otto (Coy Covington), and mother, Queen Marie (Lisa Hassler). In puberty, he feels his first stirrings of man-on-man passion under (literally) a Teutonic tutor (Kevin Moore) but is forced to audition a string of princesses for matrimony before finding a gemütlich connection with sweet-natured, humpbacked Princess Sophie (Kelly Grandjean). With her encouragement, he begins to fulfill his dream of building a series of castles inspired by Wagner's operas.
Meanwhile, 100 years hence in a small Texas town, a flirty little tough named James Avery (John de los Santos) seduces both his pal Henry Lee Stafford (Moore again) and high school princess Sally Mortimer (Grandjean). Like Ludwig, whom he'll encounter in Act 2 through Rudnick's tricks of time travel, James dreams gorgeous dreams. He craves escape from ugliness and oppressive attitudes, and he hopes to convince Henry Lee, who isn't so copacetic with the boy-boy thing yet, to go with him...wherever.
With six actors playing dozens of oddball entities jumping in and out of the parallel plot lines, Valhalla unfolds like a Wagnerian sitcom. There are princes and villains, gods and monsters, hicks and naked dicks (this is Uptown, after all), trussed up (or not) in costume designer Tommy Bourgeous' lush operatic velvets and brocades, like extras from Lohengrin (a Ludwig favorite). When the Mad King rides onstage on a white jousting pony, it's a visual howler as clever as Rudnick's best jokes.
In Norse mythology, Valhalla was the heavenly banquet hall for slain warriors. By the end of this play, two heroic figures have died tragically in different sorts of battles but only after the playwright has fired heavy rounds of comic artillery in every direction. The best volley of funny comes in a short monologue by the Sally character, who explains her concepts of truth and beauty. "Inner beauty's tricky," she says, "because you can't prove it." Her best girlfriend, Emmeline, is blind. "Sometimes when Emmeline gets depressed," Sally says, "I describe myself."
Returning to their home theater, the cozy 140-seat Trinity River Arts Center, after the fire that forced them to relocate to El Centro College for the summer, the Uptown Players are in top form, going full out with Valhalla. B.J. Cleveland, as Ludwig, finally latches onto a role that requires strenuous overacting, something he's an expert at. As James, John de los Santos doesn't quite have the butch James Dean quality to be a believable delinquent, but his comic timing and physical grace make up for that. Kelly Grandjean, playing five roles, including Marie Antoinette, makes a lithe comic foil for her leading men. And in a dizzying array of character parts, Lisa Hassler, Kevin Moore and Coy Covington keep the laughs and the intricate plot lines zipping along.
Hard to say what deep meaning, if any, is worth gleaning from Rudnick's naughty-but-nice play. There are messages about gay stereotypes and the banality of camp, as when James and Henry Lee suddenly break into a corny movie musical production number onboard a World War II troop ship taking them to battle in Europe. Rudnick seems confused about what this play should do and in his confusion tries to make it do too much. One minute it's a farce, the next it's an attempt to renovate poor Ludwig's image in history (he wasn't really mad--his government had him declared insane to get him off the throne). Throw in a twist of Greater Tuna, and it's a big comic casserole with a side of strudel.
CTD seats patrons at round tables, and as the size of the audience has increased, the diameter of the tables and the space between chairs has shrunk. What used to be comfy ambiance now feels like a fire hazard.
Claustrophobia might also be a factor in Whorehouse, where a huge cast is forced to do the hoedowns between hos and horny Aggies on a stage just a spit and a lick bigger than a legal-sized envelope. If the performances seem a bit laid-back, it might be because director James Paul Lemons was trying to limit unnecessary movement. One wrong step and a pretty whore could end up sprawled across the front row's laps.
Big musicals lose some of their spectacle when wedged onto a small stage (a problem that also hampered Flower Mound Performing Arts Theatre's recent City of Angels). Scenic designer Rodney Dobbs added a second-floor balcony to Miss Mona's Chicken Ranch headquarters for Whorehouse, but that just means the girls slinking around up there in the dance numbers risk decapitation by three whirling ceiling fans.
Whorehouse is what it is, a corny piece of faux country-western fluff about a silly episode in Texas history. In the 1970s a crusading Houston TV reporter campaigned to get a decades-old South Texas brothel closed down. Writers Larry L. King and Peter Masterson turned a magazine article into a musical (tunes and lyrics by Carol Hall) that enjoyed four years on Broadway and was blown up into a really awful 1982 movie starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds.
CTD's production features a smooth if colorless performance by Jenny Thurman as Miss Mona, though she's about 20 years too young for the part. Ted Wold wears a ziggurat of fake white hair as Melvin P. Thorpe, the sin-busting TV guy, and acts with all the subtlety of Mad King Ludwig. Charles Ryan Roach galumphs his way through the role of Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd.
Brian Loncar, the "strong arm" lawyer from TV commercials and the money man behind this theater, enjoys some sweaty moments in the spotlight as a Texas governor trying to sidestep the issue of prostitution. Up on that cathouse catwalk, Loncar's not too bad singing a comic patter-song and pussyfooting through easy choreography by Paula Morelan. The effect of his performance is like watching one of those swimming pigs at San Marcos' Aquarena Springs. You're amazed that the creature is making the effort, so you don't fault it for not doing the breaststroke.
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