More Tune Than Show

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better song to pull you out of the lost romance blues (or any life doldrums, for that matter) than John Kander and Frank Ebb's The World Goes 'Round. It is, appropriately, the tune that provides the title to a revue of the work of the longest composing collaboration in American theatrical history.

Lyricist Kander and composer Ebb swear in interviews that they've never argued once in their 37 years of professional history together; you tend to believe that hearing The World Goes 'Round. How can two people share writing credit on what's really more of a manifesto, or at least the ultimate anti-show tune, and not be utterly in sync in their outlooks? Your "heart can break with a deafening sound," but still the seasons change, and "the world goes 'round"--not your typical solipsistic musical sentiment, surely, in a genre that fetishizes love and loss beyond even the value of who's loved and who's been lost. That's the beauty of Kander and Ebb's best numbers in shows such as Chicago, Cabaret and The Kiss of the Spider Woman: They stir in that extra few drops of character detail to help you sympathize with what the singer is celebrating/mourning, rather than expecting you will be touched simply from show-tune conditioning.

Character is obviously much on the mind of director-costumer Bruce Coleman, who returns to Theatre Three after a considerable absence from the city's major theater companies. Taking a cue from the Kander and Ebb score of the Martin Scorcese flick New York, New York--yep, they penned the tune that Sinatra drove into the ground and Ed Koch declared the city's official anthem--he has perused the Scorcese video canon to co-design a basement lounge full of '70s attire and attitude. You can argue that it's a redundant choice, given how the Kander and Ebb catalogue feels like a standard repertoire with its demands that actors who sing it also act while they're singing, but at least Coleman doesn't solely rely on either vocalists or lyrics, as Lyric Stage producer Steven Jones recently did in the disastrous Bruce Friedman concert As Long As I Can Sing. Coleman strives for a mood that set designer Harland Wright doesn't entirely sustain with a bar that looks more like the lounge of a midpriced hotel or even a slightly upscale neighborhood bar. The seediness doesn't quite germinate and grow, nor does it with Coleman's costumes, which he has lifted almost stitch-for-stitch from a couple of different Scorcese flicks. Nothing about this production visually make these drifters seem as lonely and desperately hopeful as the songs they deliver.

Generally speaking, the four women fare better than the trio of men with these 28 numbers, but all are given superb jazzy support from musical director Terry Dobson's unseen live band. It's not unexpected that you'll get a few tingles when Theatre Three stalwart Sally Soldo turns on her pipes; as The Bar Owner, she drifts from nicely counterpointed moods (the serene "Colored Lights" and the quasi-obscene "Class," a duet with N. Wilson King as The Bar Singer). King herself returns after a three-year out-of-town hiatus to open the show with a languidly funky interpretation of the title tune, straddling a bar stool with a smashing global 'fro on the top of her head. Jenn Tusa as The Hooker starts off in a folded-back hat and sunglasses that look like they were lifted from Shelley Duvall's wardrobe on a Robert Altman shoot. She does a great job essaying heartbreak in "My Coloring Book," the first song Kander and Ebb wrote together. The night I saw her, though, she had a bit of trouble executing Linda K. Leonard's balletic choreography with The Dealer (Jamey Cheek) and The Sailor (Sergio Antonio Garcia). The round-faced Cheek looks more like a husband on a business trip than a seller of drugs, even if he does roll up his sleeve to stick a needle in a track-covered arm during "The Kiss of the Spider Woman."

Patrick Amos as The Janitor is the real victor among the male players here, wringing every bit of salaciousness from "Sara Lee" (he sings about his favorite woman's "cherry danish" like a real dessert aficionado) and complaining in "Mister Cellophane" that he can't get anyone to pay attention to him. As a performer, Amos doesn't have this problem; he's one of a couple of entertainers on display here who keep us paying attention to this solid if lackluster evening.

Any show that effortlessly grafts the phrase "virgin-whore dichotomy" onto the melody of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" deserves a mention in this column--even when that production closed after just three performances. Austin's theatrical ensemble Viva La Vulva rented the McKinney Avenue Contemporary for the feminist clownaround they've dubbed Bitch Stole My Ruby Red Slippers, and I'm happy to report that the five young women--by my own math, the average age of the collaborative writer-director-performers is 25--exuded a playfulness that bodes well for the future of a movement that's been condemned as a different kind of "F" word in this conservative climate. Strangely, progressives have often had a problem using laughter to promote their own agenda with the same success conservatives have had in attacking that agenda. Viva La Vulva, whose MAC program biographies boast of no children in the future, rifle shooting competitions and genders designated as both "bitch" and "c**t," seems to lean more toward The Go-Go's than any particularly surly riot grrrl. Not that there's an insurmountable distance between the two, as any fan of the small institution Belinda, Gina and the ladies built from the ground up knows; they tend to be separated only by a sense of humor and the acknowledged affection of the influences that may have also tainted them in some way. The Vulvas bridged the gap between bubblegum and bra-burning; they've discovered that spinning yuks from the most culturally insignificant (but wildly popular) places often produces commentary that leaps far beyond its intended broad target. And because they never claim to tinker with ideas bigger than those targets hold up, they deserve a closer scrutiny than their subjects ever would.

Speaking of musical references, Bitch Stole My Ruby Red Slippers teemed with them, largely because the Vulva gals have a fruitful love-hate relationship with the female teen pop stars whom they so cheerfully skewer in their show. "I want to change the face of pop!" frequently announces Dorothy Gale (Heather Smith) doing a spot-on teen-age Judy Garland impression to lend this Wizard of Oz riff even more comic heft. That movie about a Kansas girl who discovers she's more at home in a strange land of color and risk has been pillaged for all its countercultural implications; on a more surface level, the fact that Garland was a child famously used and overworked by the Hollywood studios makes you ponder the level of commitment asked of Christina, Britney, Lee Ann, Jessica and all the other blond minors currently propping up an industry. In Bitch, Dorothy Gale is a new hire at a corporate music label. Her tendency to spontaneously fall asleep during moments of duress leads to an elaborate dream where the Viva La Vulva collaborators rely on some too predictable carry-overs from the movie--Ashley Tin (Natalie Stanco) is a silvery workaholic who wants a brain, Leona (the skittishly comical Trista Wyly) wants courage, etc. They interact well together: Stanco as Ashley Tin, the mannequin who just wants a brain, does a canny impersonation of an adventurer who's smarter than she realizes, and after Smith as Dorothy retrieves the chunky high-heeled "slippers"-- discarded after J. Lo was crushed by a falling house--they take a golden road and finally confront both The Wizard and The Woman Behind the Wizard. That would be Madonna (April Gibson, in Music-era white cowboy hat). Because Madonna has lately been feted as both a feminist pioneer and a great artist--when, truthfully, she's an admirable businesswoman of extremely limited musical ability--it's refreshing to see her torn apart by red-nailed youngsters. She can offer no courage, no heart and no brains (OK, that one's debatable in this critique) to the weary travelers, who're reduced to--you guessed it--striking a pose to the tune of "Vogue." Bitch Stole My Ruby Red Slippers works because it never fails to take the girl-singer issues deadly serious and itself not a whit in that direction.

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Jimmy Fowler