The Color of Funny

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

I'm gonna be so bad to you!

Not Cole Porter but not bad for an up-and-comer.

Brent Black says he was inspired by Jason Robert Brown's storyline-free Songs for a New World as he wrote Shades of Gray into a loosely themed two hours of musical comedy. With its clever commentary on the world of '80s babies, the show succeeds as light entertainment and makes a nice introduction to the work of a bright new composer. The real story will be what Black does in the rest of his promising career.

Plano Repertory Theatre went under a few weeks ago. Not a surprise. Since early this year, many of its actors, directors, designers and full-time staffers had gone unpaid. The theater's debts were in the hundreds of thousands. Management was locked out of offices for nonpayment of rent. Audiences were subjected to pleas for cash donations in the pre-show speeches before performances.

Sad to see a theater with a nearly 30-year history fall into such a sorry state. Certainly the quality of productions had eroded considerably under the misguided artistic direction of young Ryan J. Pointer, who had a tin ear for what Plano's audiences would go for. He picked lousy plays with controversial themes--the all-male and utterly dreadful Shakespeare's R&J, the unwatchable Violet, among others--and he could take a warhorse like Camelot and muck it up with clunky direction. He claimed to be spending upward of $35,000 per production (equal to budgets of bigger and better shows at the more professional WaterTower Theatre and Contemporary Theatre of Dallas), but PRT's onstage output looked increasingly slapdash and down-at-the-heel.

With PRT's demise, its 3,000-plus subscribers are left without refunds for the three shows remaining in that theater's pre-sold season (including the musical Nine, which would have opened September 8). In the spirit of artistic cooperation, several of the Dallas Theatre League's member theaters have offered to make good on those tickets with seats at their shows.

Offering PRT patrons trade-ins for tickets are Contemporary Theatre (currently running a delightful production of Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest), Theatre Three (with the just-opened Imaginary Invalid and the new "Appetizer Series" musical Elegies: A Song Cycle), Plano's Quad C Theatre and several others. The theaters can't afford to hand out 3,000 free tickets for any single production, so PRT's stiffed customers are asked to call ahead to each theater to see if seats are available. It's a nice offer by these companies, which hope to lure some of PRT's audience onto their subscriber rolls.

With the demise of one theater comes the resurrection of another. Pegasus Theatre, which lost its longtime East Dallas home a few years ago, returns with productions of two of its campy comedy-mysteries. First up is Death/Take:1!, opening at the Dupree Theater at the Irving Arts Center November 4. Then Mind over Murder opens January 5 at the Eisemann Center Theatre.

Both comedies are by Pegagus founder and resident playwright Kurt Kleinmann and will be performed in the company's unique "living black and white" style that emulates old B-movies by painting everything, including the actors, black, white and the subtle gradations in between. Talk about shades of gray.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner