You've got to climb to the top of Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls. That's the opener of Jacqueline Susann's crapgasmic 1966 novel, and the first words spoken in a new Valley of the Dolls theatrical adaptation now running at Uptown Players.
Transporting this immortal phrase from page to stage required two dedicated sherpas. Dallas theater veterans Doug Miller and Bob Hess, both Dolls fanatics, were granted the rights to adapt the novel by Susann's heir, a niece who lives in Fort Worth (Susann died of cancer in 1974). Miller and Hess spent a year working on their version, which also incorporates the ear-flattening musical score by composer Andre Previn and his then-wife, lyricist Dory Previn. (If you've never suffered through the big number, "I'll Plant My Own Tree," be assured that it deserves its status as the worst song ever written for, or sung in, a big-budget Hollywood movie.)
Not aiming for the pinnacle of playwriting with their adaptation, Miller and Hess have climbed no higher than base camp with Dolls. Part high-fashion pharm party ("dolls" being Susann's slang term for prescription drugs), part loving homage to the wonderful/awful writing in the book (on the first page, Susann described Manhattan as "an angry concrete animal") and part kitschy send-up of the styles and mores of the 1960s, their show is kicky, kooky fun with a freakishly good cast. It's also part and parcel, not so much of the novel, but of Dolls' howler of a screenplay.
And that's where Uptown's production stumbles on its way to the valley. As an almost scene-by-scene re-creation of the film, the live show gets bottled up and bogged down with cumbersome scene changes, uneven pacing and a parade of supporting characters. With a cast of 20 crowding the shallow stage at the KD Studio Theatre, half of them playing multiple roles (and really well too), it starts to look like Grand Central Station at rush hour. It's all a beautifully costumed, exquisitely coiffed, lavishly eyelashed madhouse, which on opening night ran almost 40 minutes longer than the two-hour movie it's heavily borrowed from.
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And what a movie it was. To review for the uninitiated, Valley of the Dolls began in 1966 when the author, a failed TV actress with a flair for self-promotion and a wardrobe of what critic Rex Reed once called "banana-split nightmares," scored big with her first work of fiction, a sexed-up potboiler about three ingénues navigating the worlds of high fashion, pop music and porn by way of the prescription counter. The book was, at the time, the fastest-selling work of fiction in publishing history.
The film came out in 1967 starring Oscar winner Patty Duke as Judy Garland-like singer and dope fiend Neely O'Hara; Barbara Parkins, the brunet bitch-goddess of that year's hit TV soap Peyton Place, as virgin-gone-bad Anne Welles; and Sharon Tate, a blond Beverly Hillbillies bit player and soon-to-be Mrs. Roman Polanski, as mammarily gifted skin flick siren Jennifer North.
Not surprisingly, Valley of the Dolls was a box office mega-hit despite its being an over-acted, overdressed piece of dreck. In a year when Hollywood also released artistic gems such as Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night, Dolls was the trash wallow everybody saw but nobody would admit to having seen (just like nobody but horny schoolgirls owned up to buying or reading the book).
Dolls, the movie, came and went. Years passed. Hairdos changed. The book went out of print. Patty Duke did TV, went bonkers for a while and started playing grandmothers in movies of the week. Barbara Parkins made a few minor films and disappeared from view. Beautiful Sharon Tate, nominated for the Golden Globes' Most Promising Newcomer of 1967, was murdered by the Manson family in the summer of '69. Susann died having outlined but not written a Dolls sequel.
Then with the rise of cable and video in the 1980s, the unexpected happened. Valley of the Dolls was reborn as a small-screen cult classic. From trashy disaster to treasured work of low art, Dolls found a permanent home in gay culture. Quoting lines from the film—"Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!" and "You know how bitchy fags can be!"—started serving as proof of poofta-tude. There was a TV miniseries remake in 1981. Live theatrical Dolls started popping up on the coasts, notably a 1996 production at Greenwich Village's Circle in the Square Downtown that a New York Times critic dubbed "entertainment for the easily pleased." A new edition of the book was published in 1997. Dolls made a comeback and stayed.
And so we come to Uptown, where the gays like to see the plays, and the "regional debut" of Miller and Hess' likable, almost lovable, mess. Sure, there's too much of everything in their show, but that extravagance seems unavoidable, given the source material. There are scads of period costumes and '60s-style wigs, all found, made or styled to perfection by designers Coy Covington and Suzi Shankle. There's a Hullaballoo scene choreographed by Paula Morelan with a half-dozen pony dancers in go-go boots.
Media designer Chris Robinson has shot original video sequences—Anne doing a fashion shoot as "The Gillian Girl," Neely at the Grammys, Jennifer in one of her French "nudie" flicks (dig actor Gary Floyd nearly naked in his onscreen cameo). They've put in musical interludes by singer Natalie King, doing Dionne Warwick doing the Previns' syrupy, grammatically godawful movie theme song ("gotta get off, gonna get, have to get offa this ride..."). It's exhausting.
The actors in Dolls somehow manage to stay on this bucking bronco of a show and ride it all the way home. Instead of simply playing the main characters, they do the nearly impossible, playing the movie stars who played the characters. Patty Breckenridge, while a mite too close to 40 to be considered ingénue material, becomes the twitchy young Patty Duke as Neely, singing the Previns' improbable pop tunes with more verve than Duke (whose songs were voiced over in the movie) ever could. As the upright Anne Welles, gorgeous Lynn Blackburn wears her That Girl power-flip with aplomb and darts her eyes just so to let us know that Anne's about to switch from sweet Radcliffe girl to slutty pill-gobbler.
Cara Statham Serber, as Sharon Tate's Jennifer, is a smart, funny blonde with a body that's no joke. She speeds through the bad phone-call scenes just as Tate did onscreen, without pauses and with wide-eyed, empty-headed line readings. Serber's reaction when Jennifer's crooner-husband Tony Polar (Rick Starkweather) suddenly blanks out (one of Dolls' cuh-raziest plot turns) is just as over-the-top silly-sad as Tate's.
The men of Dolls don't have it easy either. They're all sleazeballs, causing trouble for the girls with their slithery deals and sexual come-ons. The best male role is Lyon Burke, the jerk of a boss Anne works for and sleeps with. Actor Joe Nemmers, taking a break from his usual serious dramatic turns at artsy Kitchen Dog Theater, is a tinier titan than the part probably requires. He's good but somehow just doesn't measure up to the larger-than-life women onstage.
The rest of the cast features some names typically seen in much bigger roles at Uptown and other Dallas theaters. Comic actress Marisa Diotalevi makes dialing a rotary phone a hilarious bit of business as Tony Polar's overbearing, super-dyke sister Miriam. Lulu Ward plays umpty-jillion bit parts, with different voices for each. Allison Tolman, one of the founders of Second Thought Theatre, joins Elias Taylorson and Kevin Moore in donning a panoply of wigs, hats and coats as they dash on and off in various small roles.
And then there's Susan Mansur, making her Uptown Players debut playing Susan Hayward playing Helen Lawson, who was based (at least in part) on Ethel Merman. Mansur has impressive Broadway credits, including originating roles in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Ruthless! She recently relocated to Wichita Falls and wowed Miller and Hess when she showed up at Dolls' open auditions. She wows the audience as Lawson. She even makes planting her own tree into a showstopping solo.
After that, there's another hour of show. But what the hell.
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