Bloody Bloody Honey Kinky

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So many plays, so little time! Thank goodness for projects that allow me to work from home. Here’s a rundown of shows I saw the past couple of weeks:

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Bailiwick Chicago) – Ever since I saw a publicity photo several years ago of Benjamin Walker in tight skinny jeans, too-small muscle shirt, and guyliner for its off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater, I’ve wanted to see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. For those who gasped, there are worse reasons to go to the theater, so sue me. There is no smoldering Ben in Bailiwick Chicago’s production of Michael Friedman’s and Alex Timbers’ painfully (sometimes too painful) hip “emo-musical” about the rise and somewhat fall of America’s 7th President, but there is an entrancing, relatable, down-to-earth performance from Matt Holzfeind as Mr. Jackson (and for us who care, he does fill out that jean-and-muscle-shirt costume ensemble quite, uhmm, delectably).  I think for this play it’s pretty important that you are captivated by Jackson even as he massacres Native Americans, shoots wheelchair-bound narrators, engages in mutual cutting with his bigamist wife, and does all kinds of bad-boy things, all the while singing soft-rock songs with lyrics like “douchebag”, “teabag”, and “motherfucker”.  Because despite a strong start (the opening song “Populism, Yea, Yea” sung by the whole company is one of the more energetic opening numbers in recent musical theater in my opinion), the play’s relentless snark and hipster wink-winkness becomes wearying.

Friedman and Timbers have interesting things to say about the influence of celebrity and mythmaking in the country’s political process (I mean their self-aware, canny Jackson would probably try to out-crunch and out-curl Paul Ryan in a P90X photoshoot), but they say them in an interminably drawn-out, intermissionless ninety minutes.  For every successfully-landed politically satiric jab (I love the song “Ten Little Indians” which chronicles the decimation of the Native American population using the well-loved nursery rhyme as a frame of reference), there is a myriad of fussy business that border on the ridiculous – a paraplegic storyteller that disappears halfway through the show (played by Judy Lea Steele in an ironically gutsy performance), bong-hitting and lesbian make-out sessions in the Oval Office, a terribly campy scene where the Washington politicians outlisp Perez Hilton and outmince Michael Musto while they debate how to deal with Jackson.  Director Scott Ferguson doesn’t really rein in the excesses of the script, and introduces gay touches here and there which push the material to over-the-topness-sphere.  I love the gritty, dirty, messy set design which makes great use of the cavernously musty National Pastime Theater in uptown, and the ensemble does committed, enthusiastic work, but like many people during the performance I attended, I was ready to leave the show even before the band finished the last chords of the closing song “The Hunters of Kentucky”.

Honeybuns (Collaboraction) – Honeybuns, in a shorter form, was the hit of this summer’s Sketchbook: Reincarnate.  Frankly, I think in a smaller dose, this indescribable sort-of mime show crossed with a raunchy stand-up act and an unwelcome teambuilding corporate workshop among strangers, probably works better.  As a full-length production, it’s a train-wreck. Honeybuns is the Neo-futurists’ Dean Evans in a yellow spandex pseudo-clown costume accessorized by a whacked-out hoop skirt.  Over the course of 70 dreadfully long minutes, he mimes, he swears, he mimes, he cajoles audiences to share camera phone photos (I think he was looking at me directly when he said some of us had camera phone galleries that are like the “Guggenheim of Dick”, gulp), he mime-dances, he brings everyone up on stage, he leads the audience out to the intersection of Milwaukee and Damen, he disappears.  I mean what is this show about? And why would I pay money to see it? While the audience is squirming onstage (the audience participation in this show is so half-baked, and not even as fun as Tony and Tina’s Wedding), he goes into some tirade about community, sharing, being truthful to yourself, etc. etc. , maybe to put some heft into an otherwise aimless, mystifying, unengaging evening.

Kinky Boots (Broadway in Chicago) – Full disclosure:  I saw an early preview performance of Kinky Boots, premiering here in Chicago in a pre-Broadway run.  Based on the reviews of opening night, though, I don’t think the show has changed drastically from the performance I saw (unlike The Addams Family which was also in a pre-Broadway run a couple of years ago).  Kinky Boots is based on the 2005 film about a drag queen and a young men’s shoe factory owner who team up to save the bankrupt factory by producing shoes for men who dress like women, and featured a career-making performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola, the drag queen. This is definitely a work-in-progress musical.  Let’s start with the good news, the fabulous Cyndi Lauper, in her first musical theater writing foray, writes fabulous, catchy, highly-accessible original songs (the Season Act ender, “Everybody Says Yeah” which includes impressive dancing on a moving assembly line, and the finale “Raise You Up/Just Be” will make you jump up from your seat and dance with a vengeance) that will set this show apart from a Broadway ridden with jukebox musicals.  The hard-working, wonderfully-jelled ensemble is led by an outsized Billy Porter as Lola and a sympathetic Stark Sands as Charlie, the factory owner.  Overall Kinky Boots is a warming, feel-good, sweetly-welcoming night at the theater.

That’s all and good, but sometimes warming, feel-good, and sweetly-welcoming aren’t great, or even good, theater.  I hope the issues are all worked out before the show opens on Broadway, but I have major concerns with Harvey Fierstein’s book. I love Fierstein, and we all know he can write honestly and heartfully about being a gay person, as shown by the magnificent Torch Song Trilogy and the equally memorable book for the musical La Cage Aux Folles.  But despite Porter’s heroic efforts, Lola is a stereotypical, clichéd drag queen, full of fabulousness and feathers, and lacking an emotional life. We don’t really get a sense of the hardship that he faced growing up or his troubled relationship with her father (unless you count the jaw-droppingly wrong, The Bodyguard-like ballad in a nursing home in Act 2 where Porter looks and acts like Whitney Houston at resurrection).  And so unlike the film, this Lola has no teeth, no edge, no tough-tenderness, which makes some of the plot points (for example, the Act 2 boxing match with a factory worker who hates gays, which was a more believable arm-wrestling match in the film) ring false.  Act 2 needs a lot of work, in my opinion – it feels rushed overall with the Milan fashion show coming without enough build-up, and Charlie’s tirade at Lola about needing to be a real man feels like it came from nowhere.  My other reservation is that Kinky Boots’ drag element (and there are drag queens all over the place in this adaptation, unlike the film where Lola was singular Queen Bee) feels strangely neutered.  The drag numbers don’t dazzle as much as you would expect them to in director Jerry Mitchell’s staging (for example, “The Land of Lola”) and they feel more Drury Lane Theater than The Baton Show Lounge. The Broadway production of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert proves that you can embrace all your drag queen teacups and platforms and massive hairpieces glory and still be a hit.  You know, suburban audiences just wanna have fun.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs until November 10 at the National Pastime Theater, 941 W. Lawrence Ave., 4th Floor.  Honeybuns is at the Flat Iron Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee, until October 28.  Kinky Boots ends its pre-Broadway run at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, on November 4 to re-open in New York in the spring of 2013.

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