By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Imagine Ben-Hur acted out on a stage the size of a twin bed and you've got The Big Bang. Pure madness is what it is, the funniest, sweatiest three-man musical ever to condense the history of civilization to less than an hour and a half. They start the timeline with "Let there be light" and end sometime around Woodstock. In between comes a frenetic hopscotch through the millennia, highlighted with show tunes and shtick and shtuff so insanely silly you'll hate yourself for laughing so hard.
Squeezed into Theatre Too, the teensy-weensy bunker under Theatre Three in the Quadrangle, it's like Aidaperformed in a handball court. The Big Bang, reviewed at a preview performance, explodes like a supernova and works its stars like Trojans (and Spartans and Romans! Oh, meus!). Gary Floyd (the tall sweaty one) and Doug Miller (the short sweaty one) gallop through this thing, singing, dancing, juggling, jumping in and out of a jillion outfits—they must shed 5 pounds a night. (The third man, onstage pianist Terry Dobson, who also directed the show, manically bangs out the score with a goofy "Can you believe I'm doing this?" look on his mug.)
Floyd and Miller, two of Dallas theater's top musical comedy divos, portray Boyd and Jed, aspiring and deeply in-over-their-heads Broadway hit-makers (named for Big Bang composer Jed Feuer and book writer/lyricist Boyd Graham, who starred in the original New York production seven years ago). The pair has cooked up the most spectacular and expensive musical the Great White Way has ever seen—318 speaking roles and 6,428 costumes—but nobody will ever see it if they can't raise the $83.5 million needed to stage it.
That's where the audience comes in. The upshot of The Big Bang is that we're part of the show, playing well-heeled potential backers gathered in the tchotchke-filled living room of a Park Avenue apartment belonging to a Dr. and Mrs. Lipbalm, who, conveniently for Boyd and Jed, are vacationing in Israel. This conceit allows the boys to clown directly to the crowd. They pass around some tasty hors d'oeuvres before the show and during it use every one of the Lipbalms' lampshades, footstools and flower pots as impromptu props.
In 75 minutes, Boyd and Jed give us "investors" a shorthand version of the production they envision as "12 hours of pure entertainment" with a two-hour dinner break, a sort of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The guys play all the great figures in the history of mankind, starting out stripped to their jockstraps as Adam and Eve. They're teased by a hand-puppet snake in "Free Food and Frontal Nudity," a catchy ditty about life in the Garden of Eden: "Eat what you want but the apple/Or the crap'll hit the fan!"
Then they transish to ancient Egypt, asking us to imagine "a half-finished pyramid coming up through the floor of the stage." Boyd and Jed become a couple of slaves hauling stones (the Lipbalms' giant hassock). They sing in exaggerated Borscht Belt accents: "Ve're Jews and ve're having no fun/Ve sing de blues cuz dis stuff veighs a ton." At this point, we're told, "the pyramid splits open to reveal the Nile in all its splendor."
The splendiferous impossibility of such bulky scenic transitions is part of the big fun of The Big Bang. The show rips away at the overwrought excesses of budget-bloated bourgeois hits such as Les Miz, Lion King and Phantom of the Opera. They get in a swipe at Cats by having a lion, played by Miller, perched Pfeiffer-like on the grand piano with a doily on his head, croon about devouring Christians in the Colosseum.
Christians, Jews, Hindus—the show is an equal-opportunity offender, though the religious gibes are pretty gentle. The mothers of Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi harmonize about raising sons. Sings Mary (played by Floyd), "After the loaves and fishes, guess who did the dishes?" And Mrs. Gandhi (Miller) sings, "I love my son Mohandas, but his modus operandus is about to do me iiiiiiiin."
Attila the Hun makes an appearance, a colander for a helmet. King Henry VIII's chefs wail about the monarch's eating habits, rhyming "Buddha" with "Tudor." Over in the New World, Pocahontas and Minnehaha, assayed as a couple of jaded party girls, meet for martoonis in the lobby bar of the Algonquin Hotel (where else?).
The sheer idiocy of the whole affair begs some comparison to The Producers, wherein larcenous impresarios Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock entice rich little old ladies to over-bankroll Springtime for Hitler, their intentionally offensive piece of showbiz schlock. That show-within-the-show is designed to close on opening night. The joke is that it becomes a hit and the producers go to jail for fraud. Part of the likable nuttiness of The Big Bang is that Boyd and Jed think a musical daylong history lesson with a cast of thousands is genuinely genius. It's obvious only to us (and possibly their hapless pianist) that their godawful dawn-of-creation creation is Springtime for Hitler, Co-Starring Jesus, Lincoln, Gandhi and Cher, with a side trip down the Nile and let's not forget the Irish tenor tribute to the Potato Famine in which a farmer named Paddy O'Gratin (Floyd) sings to his last spud: "Gazin' in your eyes, somethin' in me dies."
OK, that is genius, up there with The Simpsons' musical adaptation of Streetcar. But the message, if there needs to be one, is that bigger isn't always better. There's a reason tickets to Lincoln Center's production of Tom Stoppard's grim 9-hour Coast of Utopia are easier to score right now than, say, seats for Jersey Boys. Which would you rather sit through: a short, happy one-act musical or a marathon homage to Chekhov set in pre-revolutionary Russia?
Yes, we need more little gems like The Big Bang, which seems to have been inspired by two of Hollywood's greatest movie musicals, or parts of them. The audition gimmick is right out of a scene in The Band Wagon, a 1953 MGM tuner pitting hoofer Fred Astaire against snooty ballerina Cyd Charisse as they suffer artistic humiliation in a splashy Broadway flop based on Faust. And in its frantic pacing, inventive prop handling and relentless slapstickery, Bang is a mash-up of every number Donald O'Connor does in Comden and Green's 1952 MGM classic Singin' in the Rain, particularly "Make 'Em Laugh."
They do make us laugh at Theatre Too, all right—the gasping, wheezing, rocking forward kind—thanks less to Graham and Feuer's pun-filled book and score than to the considerable talents of Messrs. Floyd and Miller, who do everything but run up the walls in this production. In musical comedy, the hardest thing for a performer is to be as good at the singing as he is at the funny. These guys happen to be extremely funny actors, given great freedom by director Dobson to make fools of themselves for our amusement. First and foremost, however, Floyd and Miller are polished vocal performers. Floyd was a star in local cabarets and had recorded several CDs of his own original songs before being cast in his first musical, Pump Boys and Dinettes at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, just three years ago. He hasn't stopped working on local stages since. Miller, master of the lounge lizard leer, is fresh off a starring role in Uptown's sold-out run of the drag comedy Pageant. He's now writing (with partner Bob Hess) a musical version of Valley of the Dolls, scheduled to open at Uptown in late summer.
With weaker singers, Bang could be a bust (the New York critics weren't wild about it when the composers sang the roles they wrote). But Floyd and Miller's strong voices and perfect harmonies blend like buttah. Miller's a killer as a Sinatra-like Attila. Floyd's high tenor ode to the last surviving tuber in Ireland is positively pomme sweet.
With a giddy dig at musicals and history, little Theatre Too knocks 'em dead with Big Bang.