Move over, Mormons! There's a new guy in town, a Lucky Guy. And he is funny, sings like a bird, has a heart of gold. And did I mention he's funny? Fans of Xanadu can rejoice, and get their butts down to the Little Shubert Theatre on Theatre Row at 42nd Street. Yes, folks, campy fun is back and just in time to cool us off in the coming summer months. But really, to call this campy seems a bit negative, given the connotation of the word... how about a "loving send-up"? This lighter than air laugh riot is part Xanadu (in smart, witty style), part Nashville (it is about country music in the capital of country music, after all), and definitely part A Star is Born (going right to the top and staying there is a central theme). But it is 100% tongue-in-cheek, smart and silly fun. You will leave with a smile on your face, I promise.
Let's get one thing out of the way, though, before I gush. As cast and staged, this particular production of this long-gestating musical (reviews date back as far as 1999) has a certain gay sensibility. All three of its headline stars are out actors, and two of them are somewhat gay icons to begin with. Add a chorus of four very virile, sometimes scantily clad boys called the Buckaroos, plus a quick peek at our leading man's musculature from the waist up, and you have what could easily be dismissed as a "gay romp." But outside of a few gestures and effete line readings, the pink buck stops there, and Lucky Guy becomes a full-fledged musical in its own right. In fact, until this production, the leading lady role had been played by a woman,including such actresses as Victoria Clark and Faith Prince, not a drag queen. Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with gay-themed musicals, but really, this show is not. It would be just as funny played straight, as it were.
That said, I must give much credit to leading lady Varla Jean Merman, every inch a lady and femme fatale. She credits Jeffrey Roberson as being "the wind beneath her dress" in her Playbill bio. Quite frankly, the role of Miss Jeannie Jeannine, the Queen of Country Music, is played as 100% woman. There are no coy references to being a drag queen, no cliched dropping to a man's voice at just the right moment; there is nothing of the sort. All references to her being the Queen of Country Music are clearly referencing every woman who ever had a hit on the country charts being called that, not some queer in-joke. Of course, what makes that particular bit funny is that for country royalty, she's only had one big hit, a ballad called "The Blue Jean Blues," that laments everything from how said blue jeans got knee patches to just how blue one feels in blue. And, to be perfectly honest, it never occurred to me that every sight gag involving Ms. Merman and her co-star Leslie Jordan could be about anything other than how short Mr. Jordan is (a reported 4'11"). In other words, anyone playing Jeannie, female or female impersonator, would have the same sight gag; it isn't funny because Mr. Roberson is in the dress. And again, the laughs are at the expense of country music, not drag queens, because let's face it, country queens at one time or the other have giant wigs, making them an extra foot taller or more.
More to the point, Ms. Merman and Mr. Jordan are the perfect evil couple in this melodrama. Heck, if he had a moustache, Jordan would surely be twirling it! What makes them both great fun is that neither holds back. They know that we know it is silly, outrageous humor, and they play it for all it is worth and for REAL, which makes it even funnier. As I said, Ms. Merman has a fine voice, with remarkable range, while Mr. Jordan is, shall we say, in tune, but limited vocally. But it matters not, because both are comedic pros, milking every possible laugh out of every country music cliche they are handed, be it a patter song, faux duet or a used car ad jingle. What makes the whole show work, in fact, is that relentless use of cliches - just the opposite is true usually. But here, the cliches are heightened to almost the point of insulting, and then the moment is either turned on its ear by a sight gag, a sharp, smart twist in the plot, or when you least expect it, a moment of genuine feeling.
Most fortunately, the entire company of 10 is completely in synch with playing this just so. The traditional sidekick couple, here played by Jenn Colella and Jim Newman, offers belly laughter each and every time they step out on stage; in fact, you can hear the audience giggle when they see Ms. Colella coming in before she's even said a word! She plays Chicky Lay, a wannabe country superstar who is stuck in Nashville styling wigs. Yes, wigs, not even real people's hairdos! She of the teased out blonde pompadour, Ms. Colella gets one of the evening's most riotous numbers, "I'm Doin' Hair Today," which includes probably every possible play on words having to do with hair, haircuts, and hair styling. This rapid fire ditty is clever enough on its own, but her delivery (and diction, thank the heavens above) is spot on, nailing every laugh and squashing every groan. And, naturally, she's the opposite of the quiet ingenue, with her snapping gum and even snappier quips, often delivered directly to the audience with an understood wink-wink-nudge-nudge. Mr. Newman has less to work with, but does fine as the down-on-his-luck, verge-of-collapse, can-only-be-saved-by-the-bad-guy role. Interestingly, as done to death as that stereotype is, you never get bored watching him. His enthusiasm and obvious affection for his co-star is infectious.
Broadway-style dance fans won't be disappointed, either. Choreographer A. C. Ciulla manages to make the cast of ten look like forty during the big production numbers, particularly the country-gospel act one finale, "Do What You Can Do," where complex dance steps and formations more than make up for the small number of people on the stage. And aside from the six principal characters, he has a small chorus, the aforementioned "Buckaroos" (Callan Bergmann, Xavier Cano, Wes Hart and Joshua Woodie) who do amazing work. Ciulla has really pulled out all the stops, blending country line dance, square dance, Broadway jazz, tap and even some boy band choreography. He is constantly mixing things up, so that a number like "Nashville" which the Buckaroos open each act with, may start out with some smooth line dancing, when out of the blue, you have some boy band moves, quickly changed to Broadway jazz and back to line dancing. It is visually interesting at all times, but the mixing of styles makes it delightfully surprising, too. And the Buckaroos also provide a ton of laughs (and oohs and ahhs) as they become everything from scantily clad (and I mean scantily) Indians who also happen to tap dance, to Elvis impersonators who do Viennese waltz moves, to gospel-inspired angels. They do a couple of other things that I would love to describe, but it would ruin a lot of the surprises the show has in store, so my lips are sealed! Not since The Will Rogers Follies has a dancing boys chorus looked this good in feathers and cowboy hats!
Of course, there is the real man of the hour, Willard Beckham, who wrote the book, the score, and the lyrics of Lucky Guy, and has seen this show through several productions for well over a decade. Here, he also directs. And what a treat the whole package is: I've mentioned the witty book, the smart lyrics and the dead-on send-ups of every style of country music. But there are two things that Mr. Beckham has achieved that really need to be pointed out. First, he has a unique take on the world around him as evidenced by one clever sight gag after another. I mean clever as in original, non-stop and never, not once, too much of a good thing. From little things, like having a Coke machine spontaneously light up to say "It's the Real Thing" when our star-crossed lovers share a soda while professing their attraction to each other, to a street trash can that suddenly comes apart because it is really made out of tambourines. And secondly, the man really understands pacing, interesting stage pictures and the need for perfect timing. Without any of those, this would be a deadly piece of theatre. It helps immensely that he has surrounded himself with some serious technical names in the business who know a thing or three about being clever. Rob Bissinger's rainbow hued settings are a visual feast, all while still looking appropriately tacky; William Ivey Long has struck comedic gold with dozens of costumes, each one beautiful, but also laugh out loud funny (see the blue jean dress, for starters); Paul Miller's bright lights make the show feel Broadway sized, and theatre legend Paul Huntley has contrived some of the best wigs seen on a New York stage since Hairspray. I'd love to have had the sequin and rhinestone budget they had for this show, and they aren't limited to the costumes.
Last but not least, not by far, are the two young lovers of this twisted tale of schemes and dreams, Savannah Wise (Wanda) and Kyle Dean Massey (Billy Ray). Ladies and gentlemen, the new generation of musical theatre talent is born and ready to take on the adult roles. Playing the love interest ingenue roles can be deadly in the wrong hands (picture a West Side Story with a bad Tony and Maria), and playing the often straight man to all the comic mayhem can make it even worse. But in the more than capable hands of Miss Wise and Mr. Massey, the show's heart - which makes the entire production really work and please the audience - comes out at just the right moments. To be sure, they each get their funny moments. The scene where Jeannie Jeannine tries to seduce poor naive Billy Ray is truly fun to watch because Massey matches each Merman move with a sweet and funny awkward bit. The look on his face when she mentions the "lump beneath his Levis" is a scream. And Wanda has her moments, too, as when she confronts Jeannie Jeannine and they settle it all by having a car race to Billy Ray's place. Yes, a car race. (Again, fun and clever staging by Mr. Beckham.) Needless to say, both have magnificent voices, Mr. Massey in particular. Here, he gets to show a vocal and acting range that is far from his miraculous work in next to normal, and it makes Wicked look like a walk in the park.
Shows in this style are so difficult to pull off, and most of the time the audience is blissfully unaware, because when done right, as it is here, it looks effortless and everyone is having such a great time, no one notices the exhausting work. Whatever they are paying this cast, it isn't enough. I imagine this will be a tough ticket during Gay Pride events in June (word will spread quickly about the Buckaroos and Kyle Dean's abs, I'm sure). Right now, the show is scheduled to close July 24th. It would be a real shame to miss it. Good times like this are rare enough. So, when you can't get a ticket to The Book of Mormon, get your cowboy hats, tight jeans and boots down to the Little Shubert Theatre on 42nd Street and snag yourself a ticket. You will not regret it.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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