Winging It

Ever sat through a show thinking you've seen and heard it all before? The derivative tunes, the hackneyed lyrics. The creative duo Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart had--too many times--before deciding a few years ago to take out some comic revenge by writing the four-actor off-Broadway hit The Musical of Musicals (the Musical!). Theatre Three ends its season with a fine production of this punchy little pastiche of musical theater styles directed by Jac Alder. It's so full of in-jokes and mean swipes at the gods of Broadway--Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, Webber and Rice, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman and Marvin Hamlisch--you'll never look at a feather-boa-waving leading lady or an 11 o'clock kick-line the same way again.

It helps if you know by heart the cast albums of every Broadway classic that begins with a C: Carousel, Company, Cabaret, Chorus Line and Cats. Rockwell and Bogart send up the thin story lines of most musicals by repeating the same melodramatic theme in their five short spoofs (She can't pay the rent! She must pay the rent!). They also slyly suggest the signature chord changes, rhythms and rhyme schemes associated with the well-known composers. They know their territory backward and forward, bending it sideways in side-splitting ways.

They begin with Corn, a bite of Rodgers and Hammerstein-style hokum packed with kernels of South Pacific, Sound of Music and Oklahoma! It's Kansas in August down on the farm. Aunt Abby (Sally Soldo) sits in a rocker spinning out advice to young June (Arianna Movassagh). Will the little gal "murry" handsome but stupid Big Willy (Eric Domuret) or be forced to wed the evil landlord Jidder (Doug Jackson)?

The bucolic scene is described in song by Big Willy, who strides around the stage singing of chipmunks reading the Bible and cattle that "plie in a dreamy ballet/as normal as blueberry pie." High as an elephant's eye, he sings, "I'd gladly forsake any shovel or rake/I'm in love with a beautiful ho!" Aunt Abby croons to June one of those insipid inspirational hymns about having to climb mountains, face storms and ford streams: "Follow your dream/Don't ask me why/Follow your dream until you die!/Walk on through the wind/Trudge on through the rain/Though your hair's all blown and you look insane!"

Corn cobbles together enough jokey dialogue and loony lyrics to get Musical of Musicals off to a rousing start. But the next mini-musical, a tribute to Stephen Sondheim titled A Little Complex, delivers the most devious moments of satire.

Out-Sondheiming Sondheim is no simple task. But by layering the urban uptightness and unlikable characters of Company onto the fairy-tale creepiness of Into the Woods and the Grand Guignol homicides of Sweeney Todd, Rockwell and Bogart manage to pay homage to the king of hard-to-sing while pointing out the very things that make his work both unique and annoying.

"Irony! Ambiguity! Dissonance! Angst!" shriek the four residents of The Woods, a chic Manhattan apartment house. In this one Abby (Soldo again) is an Elaine Stritch type: "She's bitter and boozy/A bit of a floozy/She's blowsy and frowsy and not very chooooo-sy." She even gets her "I'd like to propose a toast" moment that ends on one of those tortured high notes that Stritch used to strangle on. Soldo savors every overwrought syllable like the last drop of a dry martini. (No Sondheim show goes ungigged. Listen closely for "specific overtures.")

Dear Abby is next, a not-so-clever tribute to the stalwart Jerry Herman and his perpetually bouncy, sunny hits Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles. Acting as narrator, pianist Terry Dobson sets the scene: "The lights come up on a party at Abby's swank penthouse apartment. Abby appears at the top of a staircase. The audience applauds wildly even though she hasn't done anything yet."

It's all strut-kick-strut-kick after that, with Soldo turning into a hybrid Channing-Streisand-Lansbury as the other three cast members fan her with ostrich feathers. Cute but not as good as the two scenes before it.

Act 2 of Musical of Musicals buries its claws in the mushy music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Aspects of Junita takes particular note of the Brits' heavy borrowing from Puccini operas for Cats, Sunset Boulevard, Phantom of the Opera and others. Since these shows probably sing in the memory (all alone in the moonlight!) of contemporary theatergoers more clearly than maybe the Rodgers and Hammerstein or Jerry Herman numbers, this take-off earns the night's biggest laughs. When the fog machine overdid it on the Phantom section, triggering Theatre Three's noisy smoke detectors, the first-night audience howled and the singers just belted a little louder.

Last in the lineup is the sharp-elbowed jab at Kander and Ebb with the 1930s Speakeasy--half Cabaret, half Chicago. Theatre Three's nimble quartet Fosses themselves into pretzel shapes and sings tongue-twisting semi-dirty lyrics in five fractured languages, including pig Latin. Nightclub chanteuse "Junie with a J" (Movassagh) visits boyfriend Villy (Domuret) in prison. Soldo growls like a drunken Dietrich as she tells Junie to "sell your body" to pay the rent: "Whisper a coy line/And move over, fraulein."

For the curtain calls, they tip their glittery top hats to Marvin Hamlisch and A Chorus Line. As a mad mélange The Musical of Musicals is one singular sensation.

In the theater world, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is considered holy gospel, and saying you don't like it makes you a heretic. So I guess I'm doomed.

Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-winning drama comes in two lengthy halves. Part One: Millennium Approaches is now onstage at the Bath House Cultural Center in a stripped-down and respectably, though not impressively, acted production by the Risk Theater Initiative. Part Two: Perestroika is on their schedule for 2007.

Angels takes itself and its subjects with deadly seriousness. Among the many themes: the Reagan era and the beginning of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s; ethnic intolerance; moral ambiguity; the meaning of fatherhood; the meaning of freedom; religion; marital infidelity; the afterlife.

The overlapping story lines can barely surface under the weight of a three-hour civics lesson. A young, married Mormon lawyer named Joe Pitt (David Plunkett at the performance reviewed; he alternates with Jack Birdwell) is forced out of the closet by a gay coworker (Chad Gowan Spear) whose boyish lover (Nate Dendy) is dying. Joe's wife, Harper (Jessica Wiggers), lives in denial about her marriage problems, popping tranquilizers and dreaming of Antarctica, where she communes with a mysterious "travel agent" (Cedric Neal).

Meanwhile, Roy Cohn (Rick Espaillat), the real-life New York lawyer who lived a double life as right-wing homophobe by day and profligate homosexual by night, succumbs to AIDS without ever admitting how he got it. On his deathbed he's confronted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Midge Verhein), the American Communist executed with husband Julius for spying, thanks to vigorous prosecution by Cohn.

Think West Wing is verbose? Angels in America suffers from galloping logorrhea, forcing its actors to speed-talk huge chunks of dialogue. If the Risk Theater cast didn't say their lines at the rate of tobacco auctioneers, we'd all still be sitting there.

For three acts (two intermissions), Angels flaps its gums and its wings at social issues and casts a halo glow around its gay males. Kushner so insistently tells the audience what to think that it leaves little for the viewer to do except sit back and wonder when the pushy polemics will stop. It's hard to care about any of the characters, so leaden is the subject matter and pretentious the presentation. I was sorry to see the hateful Cohn figure die, if only because he has the best lines and Espaillat gives the most impassioned and colorful performance in an otherwise bland ensemble.

On Broadway, Angels in America won Tonys. The HBO version starring Meryl Streep and Mary Louise Parker won Emmys. But Part One, at least the way Risk Theater's doing it, just didn't win me over.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner