Saturday November 11, 06
by David Cuthbert, Times-Picayune

One-stop entertainment shop at Le Chat

Saturday, November 11, 2006

DAVID CUTHBERT / The Times-Picayune

"The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!" is a well-stocked storehouse for all your musical theater needs. Sensational satirical merchandise spills off the shelves, and the personnel who sell it are as wonderful as their wares. In its New Orleans debut, this off-Broadway hit is handsomely, professionally upscale all the way.

Composer Eric Rockwell and lyricist Joanne Bogart, steeped in the melodies and wordplay of the Broadway musical, have brilliantly approximated the styles of its most popular practitioners. They have great fun with their five mock musicals, from the accessible war horses that elicit full-bodied laughter to cult favorites the cognoscenti can congratulate themselves on "getting."

The shows are all variations of the same plots and characters. In "Corn!," the Rodgers & Hammerstein take-off, it's Kansas in August and Big Willy and June sing contrapuntal love songs denying they love each other, a Hammerstein specialty. Jidder shows up demanding the rent, "Mother Abby" sings a soaring, obligatory R&H inspirational anthem and there's a "Carousel" "SoWillyquey." All ends happily.


"A Little Complex," in the style of Stephen Sondheim, takes place in a New York apartment complex called "The Woods" (as in "Into"), where we find "Irony, Ambiguity, Dissonance and Angst." The landlord demanding the rent is Jitter, a mad amalgam of "Sweeney Todd" and Georges Seurat. Jitter plans to have Jeune model for him, kill her and cover her in papier-mache. "What would be the matter of a murder of a model if the model were a moron in the middle of a muddle?" captures the essence of Sondheim. "Company" provides the template for the most memorable numbers. All ends unhappily.

The aggressive optimism of Jerry Herman is spoofed in "Dear Abby," in which the heroine is a glamorous "Big Lady" star, and also a man who plays one. Abby is a Miss Fix-It, deified by the chorus. "Take My Advice and Live!" is her theme song, her reflective ballad a rumination on whether her party spread was sufficient: "Did I Put Out Enough?" All ends happily for the star.

The wickedest of the bunch is "Aspects of Junita," in which Andrew Lloyd Webber is pilloried for his rock operas, mock operas, Puccini pilfering, themes reprised to death, over-reliance on spectacle and commercialization of everything he does, "Now and Forever." All ends happily for the composer.

The creators have a ball with their Kander & Ebb "Speakeasy," set in a cabaret in Chicago during Prohibition with a lewdly grinning emcee, Fosse-esque dances, leading lady Juny who keeps singing about how to pronounce her name, and Fraulein Abby, a Lenya-Dietrich diseuse. Variants of Kander's trademark vamps, Ebb's wit and songs going as far back as "My Coloring Book" are here, in "a great big world of Maybe -- this time." All ends darkly.

The four singing, dancing actors work purposefully as an ensemble and with considerable panache as individuals.

Craig Fols comes from the original off-Broadway cast and is a marvel. A big ol' galoot who looks like a local bartender-bouncer, he is all the heroes, singing in a ballsy baritone, anchoring the show with his conviction. His leaps in the "run of DeMille" ballet are those of a buffalo who thinks he's a gazelle, his Mandy Patinkin and "Dear Abby" "boy with the bagel," a riot.

Lovely Leslie Castay's Patti Lupone "Junita," Gwen Verdon Roxie and Liza-ish Juny are comic high points, while her Sondheim soprano solo is impressively, dizzily sung, her choreography knowingly humorous.

Christopher Bentivegna -- with his bald pate and handsome, Silly Putty face with wild child eyes -- is ideal as the villains. He's a strong singer, moves like a snake and slithers his way into your heart.

Liz Argus serves her characters funny-side-up, especially "Dear Abby!," beaming in- sanely as she sneaks glances at the other actors' dancing feet. She channels Elaine Stritch in the Sondheim showstopper "We're All Gonna Die!," makes a swell "Sunset Boulevard" demented diva and a deliciously deadpan "Fraulein Abby," whose succinct advice on how to pay the rent is that of a hard-boiled hure.

Jonne Dendinger is the talented, virtuoso pianist who narrates the show. Matthew Allamon's scenic design consists of illuminated cartoonish billboards. Su Gonczy's lighting design is a blend of color washes, suffused lighting and follow spots. Jason Knobloch's sound and the actors' enunciation combine so that words and lyrics are blessedly clear.

This is the first collaboration of co-director Brandt Blocker and musical theater wunderkind Gary Solomon Jr. It is superb entertainment in every respect, and I have just one word for them: "More."