ON THE WAY TO PARADISE
There is a telling item buried among the bric-a-brac of Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’ detailed country set of an economically depressed, coal-mining, hillbilly burg named Paradise: A tin sign shows a forest with one fallen tree; written underneath is “Who Cut One?” And that, folks, is the level of satirical humor you can expect in Paradise – A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy, now receiving its world premiere at Ruskin Group Theatre.
With toe-tapping lyrical music, fun unsophisticated paradoxical lyrics and an exposition-packed, groaner-filled, far-fetched book by Bill Robertson, Tom Sage and Cliff Wagner, Paradise tells the tale of a confidence man preacher who convinces a Podunk enclave that Reality TV will bring the money they need to fund a behemoth new church.
A bearded man with arm tattoos and overalls saunters on the stage and starts some mean fiddlin’, and even though this astounding musician distributes dialogue, he ain’t on the cast list. This is co-writer, music director and multi-instrumentalist Cliff Wagner, whose uncredited red hot group, the Old #7, plays offstage. The acting ensemble delivers his bluegrass harmonies impeccably, often eschewing vibrato for that lush Appalachian sound.
Old Man Johnson (Robert Craighead), a gruff and wry old hillbilly, joins Wagner as Louanne Knight (Rachel Noll) enters from her recently deceased mother’s general store. Our heroine – bummed, pissed-off and strangely unlikeable – is invited with something like, “C’mon, Louanne, sing a song with us.” While this folksy introduction is somewhat off-putting for a book musical, no one will care as she sings a sweet, plaintive, honky-tonk ballad. The soothing, bittersweet tag line about her town is, “This is the closest I’ll ever get to paradise.”
As the town’s wacky denizens quickly enter, it’s clear that not only is the acting going to be broad, farcical or forced (note that I didn’t say unpleasant), but the actors are pigeonholed by their one-dimensional characters and goofy dialogue. An explosion occurs offstage, and the town’s yellow-toothed weirdo, Cyndi (who will explain in an exposition-free song later that she gets attention by lighting bags of shit on fire) thinks she accidentally lit the church on fire. Kristal Lynn Lockyer’s style is so presentational as Cyndi that when she’s done at the Ruskin, I’m quite sure she can get a day job at Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe Review.
As I questioned why no one is running to put out the blaze, in walks a mesmerizing preacher, John Cyrus Mountain, and a stripper-turned-Jesus Freak, Chastity Jones. The captivating Jonathan Root creates an explosion on stage as the newly arrived, ego-driven, evangelistic pastor with the satirical upbeat number, “Greater Than Thou,” backed up by (oddly) Cyndi and Chastity. From my vantage point – and because Dan Weingarten egregiously lit audience members as part of his design – I could see patrons positively beaming, as was this reviewer, at the tickling music and lyrics. So far, the elation-inducing songs quickly dissipate the memory of the book’s silliness, which includes a sudden, crammed burst of exposition from the preacher, who just happens to know the history of each townsperson, including the closeted germ-a-phobe Mayor Gayheart (yes, that’s the character’s name), who desires a Broadway career for his black son Tater Gayheart. (As Tater, Elijah Rock does a rip-roarin’ tap routine in “I Don’t Wanna Sing on Broadway.”)
After characters disappear with puerile exit lines, Chastity explains to Louanne her relationship to the Lord in the hysterically irreverent, “Jesus is Deep Inside Me (and he ain’t pulling out),” which includes double-entendres like “I let Jesus mount me from above.” The curvaceous and plucky Nina Brissey creates a sexy, flashy, trashy conflagration as she uses the porch’s support beams for a riotous pole-dancing routine, executing Tor Campbell’s economical choreography with writhing strength.
In come Reality TV producer Rebecca Washington (Marie-François Theodore) and her cameraman – and eventual love interest to Louanne – Peter Silverman (Michael Rubenstone). The evil, unfeeling, cell-phone using producer and the lackluster, lovelorn cameraman both lack backstory and serve more as plot points than as true characters.
As the show progresses, the dialogue becomes increasingly foolish and the situations even more implausible: While babysitting an infant which “looks like an armadillo,” Cyndi loses her temper after cradling the tiny (plastic doll) child in her arms and hurls it to the floor. Later, in the You-Can’t-Make-This-Shit-Up Department, the mayor’s son runs off stage to check on the baby and returns with a ripped shirt, telling his dad, “I lost a nipple.” The two then exit, scanning the ground for the lost nipple.
When the preacher asks his virginal disciple, Chastity, “You wanna go to the Dairy Queen?” she responds with “Can I have a Banana Boat?” “I was hoping you’d ask,” he replies as they (Wocka! Wocka! Wocka!) exit to tepid laughter, made even more tepid because “Dairy Queen” is relied upon several times for cheap laughs.
And this is where the rocky Paradise needs retooling. The bluegrass-based songs are so entertaining and chockablock with parody (excepting the occasional lovely ballad), that we are completely willing at the top to suspend our disbelief at the asinine superficiality. But each new inane chunk of dialogue begins to chip away at the trust we put into the context of the show. The Hee-Haw humor eventually stretches credulity – an asset sorely needed in an entertainment such as this – to the breaking point.
The man responsible for the development of the material is director Dan Bonnell. His guidance has created a fully-realized workshop presentation that is laden with potential, mainly due to the story and the songs. America is ripe for a musical satire in the vein of Finian’s Rainbow (1947), but at this point, the book is attempting to satirize the media, race, poverty, religion and the supernatural, but it unintentionally becomes a lampoon of a satire. The jokey burlesque nature becomes wearying when compounded by the in-your-face presentment and the overall unnaturalness of the ensemble, which nixes authenticity in the bud.
A prime example is the gloves used by the OCD-impaired mayor, exuberantly played by Jason Rowland: Yellow Playtex Living Gloves and oven mitts are haphazardly switched from scene to scene, but it is an unfunny device which backfires; if the gloves represent the mayor’s repressed sexuality and his inability to truly connect with others, the gloves should start small and build throughout the show into – I don’t know, plastic lobster claws?
Since Robertson and Sage both worked as associate editors for National Lampoon, which used to brilliantly satirize human foolishness and vice, I look forward to seeing if they can craft a book which deftly blends caricature, ridicule and irony with truthfulness in a manner befitting the songs, such as “Mine is Bigger,” in which Reverend Mountain entices the Mayor and Tater to support his mega-church: “Size matters,” the preacher sings as he grinds his hips. As was proven in the atrociously unfunny Sketches from the National Lampoon across town, however, satire doesn’t mean silly. That’s the ticket to Paradise.
photos by Agnes Magyari
graphic design by Amelia Mulkey
Paradise – A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy
Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica
scheduled to end on March 30, 2013
EXTENDED to May 4, 2013
for tickets, call 310.397.3244 or visit http://wwwRuskinGroupTheatre.com