Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bukowsikal! or, searching for the elusive fab musical

My luck in choosing entries at the New York Fringe Festival (disclaimer: I volunteer to do odd jobs for the festival, which earns me vouchers towards plays) – an event I would be silly to miss, since all its venues are within a mile and a half of my flat – held good at my first choice this season. Ignoring the descriptions and the manic postcards, I yielded to the title: Bukowsikal!

A life of L.A. macho litterateur, womanizer and dipsomaniac Charles Bukowski – why did no one think of this before? Best of all, the score was more musical than rock and the singers performed it without microphones (I hate microphones) in a hundred-seat house, the former home of the late lamented Red Bull Theater, at Bleecker and Lafayette. True, I was in the front row, so could pretty well home in on the lyrics, but I was one with the entire audience in the end-of-evening standing ovation (and I never do that unless you’re Christine Ebersole or Barbara Cook): These were amazing performers doing hilarious skits, singing with big voices, getting complicated lyrics to our ears, and maintaining fixed, idiotically cheerful smiles as they sang about getting beat up in bar fights, waking in the gutter in puddles of repulsive ordure beside strange, desperate women, and standing up to the brutal, take-no-prisoners, man’s man’s world of aspirant literary celebrity.

Gary Stockdale wrote the music (hummable, in styles from country to pop to generic Broadway!); he and Spencer Green wrote the lyrics (scansion! good rhymes!). I did wonder how large the audience could be (and in L.A. yet, where this is a product of the See You Next Tuesday Company) for a show where in-jokes include other drunken writers like Faulkner, Williams and Lowry, plus the opening line of 1984 (on Saturday night, on no word of mouth, it sold out), and it helps to remember (did anyone but me even see?) the fictionalized movie of Bukowski’s life, Barfly, during the scene when Barbet Schroeder, a fey little Frenchman, auditions Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke for Bukowski’s role. (What about Faye Dunaway?) Mickey won (as I knew – remembered –he would) because he had showered much less recently than Sean. Barbet was captivated when he ripped his shirt off. And you’ve seen abortions on stage, but in how many did they use the umbilical to swing the infant around in time to the music? I wouldn’t care to predict which of the songs might become standards, but I was much entertained by “Love Is a Dog from Hell,” “The Derelict Trail,” “Chaser of My Heart” (a love duet) and, of course, “Through a Glass Barfly.” (Is this the origin of the verb barf?) Like the cast, I don’t think I stopped grinning for the full 100 minutes and, unlike the characters, I was cold sober.

Everyone was good – nary a clinker – but I do want to send mash notes to Michael Lanahan (Schroeder, Faulkner) for his manic aura and assorted mustaches; Fleur Phillips for her fine true agonized voice as the One True Love (tossed aside, of course); Lauren Rubin for her Sweet Lady Booze (Buk’s real true love); Ian Gould for playing William S. Burroughs (“I shot my wife”) so ingenuously; Marc Cardiff for his costume changes; and of course – what would a Bukowsikal be without a fat, greasy, bewildered, foul-mouthed, charmless low-life? – Brad Blaisdell in the title role. No flies on Brad, except when he brought his own.

My one contrary reflection – there had to be one you know – was: This is a spoof musical. It's a great spoof musical, but when did I last attend a good new musical that was not a spoof? Grey Gardens? But Act I of that was a spoof. Drowsy Chaperone, Curtains, The Producers, Hairspray, Urinetown, Bat-Boy ... I can't remember the last new musical I saw that took itself seriously, or was intended to be so taken. Seven, perhaps – a splendid rap musical based on Aeschylus at the New York Theater Workshop. Has the disjunct between song and real life become so great – or our wariness at all performance become so bloated as a result of constant TV barrage (and I never watch TV, mind you) – that we simply cannot accept that any of this performance has to do with real emotions, real issues, real events, real lives. Or else, like pro sports, it's all about the money, never the achievement, much less the talent.

I did not formulate this question during the show because I was having too much fun watching the show and didn't want to miss any of it. But it's a reflection nevertheless.

Good theater is still a matter of surprise. I was not expecting someone to break a bottle over Buk’s head. Coughing up his liver, okay. Watch out, if you too are in the front row. Three more performances: tonight at 10 and Friday and Saturday afternoons. The festival runs through August 26, and I still haven't made my picks yet. (Advice?)

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