How to Kill a Diva at Westwego Performing Arts Theatre through June 9
Chris Wecklein starred as Max Bialystok in The Producers for the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) nearly 10 years ago, winning an Ambie Award as Best Actor in a Musical for his performance. If Max Bialystok were around today he might consider presenting How to Kill a Diva, in which Wecklein is currently appearing, as this world premiere by JPAS is almost as good as Springtime for Hitler. Or is that “as bad?”
How to Kill a Diva asks the question: “What happens when a diabolical diva terrorizes the homicidal chorus of a financially failing opera house?” And not just any opera house, but one outside Zurich on a cold winter’s day in 1950.
Why 1950? I’m not sure. Why Zurich? Apparently, in a nod to Switzerland’s multiculturalism, so that characters can flaunt accents from all over Europe’s map–German, French, Italian–though with only occasional success.
Now, of course, any plot, no matter how preposterous, if done well, can allow an audience to have a good time (see my Shear Madness review below). The problem with Diva’s book by Glyn Bailey, Wesley Payne, and Ricki Holmes is that not only is it not funny (I counted maybe three genuine laughs in the entire show, and that’s being kind), but the writers seem to know it and regularly call attention to how bad the jokes are. We must put up with a character named Gustav Dreyer, which leads to mix-ups between “Herr Dreyer” and “hair dryer” that go on ad nauseam throughout the show.
There’s talk of constipation and hemorrhoid cream, someone has to pee all the time, and another has irritable bowel syndrome, leading to more (unfunny) fart jokes than anyone should have to put up with (cast, audience, etc.). Judging by the photos in the program, the writers appear to be middle-aged men; from their would-be humor, you’d assume they were pre-pubescent boys.
Bailey, Payne, and Holmes fail to realize that something silly like this needs to whoosh by; two hours would’ve been more than sufficient, and 90 minutes would be ideal. Instead, their musical (yup, it’s a musical with a number of unnecessary songs) clocks in at over 2 ½ hours, over-stuffed with murder plots, attempted comic bits, and even a straightforward romance. You need brilliant writers to negotiate such hairpin changes of tone. Bailey, Payne, and Holmes are not, and when the script switches to that sincere love story, it just comes off as cheesy.
Director Steve Scott does not aid matters. His staging is sloppy, he allows all manner of overacting, never gives the production any stylistic coherence, and hasn’t reined in the authors’ worst instincts, such as unfunny gay stereotypes. And while two Mafioso hitmen are clearly supposed to be bumbling, in a scene that stretches suspension of disbelief in unreality beyond the limit, they need to have some degree of menace for their presence to make any sense. While I’m all for diversity, to cast a little person as one of the bumblers, and then stage the scene so that his short stature is somewhat played for laughs, is cringe-inducing.
Bailey composed the music and serves as lyricist. While his words tend towards the banal and obvious, many of his tunes are quite pretty; they simply seem out of place among the operatic parodies. The finale, a kinda cross between God Bless America and There’s No Business Like Show Business, has the entire cast swinging their arms and marching in step as though it was the final reel of an MGM musical. Bizarre.
The cast acquits themselves as well as can be expected.
As the prima donna Lucia Fartoli, Claire Shackleton deliciously plays up her diva nature without overdoing it. Her Italian accent convinces and, when she sings, she displays a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice. Loyola is fortunate to have her on their faculty.
Rachel Looney, as the ingenue Abelinda, sings with equal purity of tone in a lovely performance.
Shackleton and Looney have the two best-written roles. The others, including Jennifer De Latte, Elizabeth Ulloa Lowry, Enrico Cannella, Jake Wynn-Wilson, and Wecklein do the best they can, going for the laughs and singing admirably.
Though, ultimately, everything ends on a happy note, the mystery here is not the relationship between Lucia and Abelinda, which you should be able to figure out long before they do, but why JPAS chose to spend its time, effort, and especially money on producing How to Kill a Diva. Maybe the detectives in Shear Madness will be able to come up with an answer.
Come From Away/Kinky Boots (June 14-16) at the Saenger Theatre
Come From Away opened in 2017 on Broadway, and has played to steadily full houses since. Having seen it in New York nearly two years ago, and again during its recent run at the Saenger, I don’t quite understand its success. I do like it, but it seems an odd duck to have met with such widespread commercial appeal. Seeing it a second time, I can at least better make sense of my muted reaction to it.
Come From Away tells the true story of the small Canadian town that welcomed 7,000 stranded passengers from over 200 diverted planes on 9/11, and then went on to house, feed and comfort them until the skies opened again a few days later. It’s certainly a heartwarming tale.
The authors, husband & wife Irene Sankoff & David Hein, distill the events to their essence, interweaving the differing perspectives of the locals and their unintentional visitors from around the world. They further narrow their focus to four individual groupings of passengers plus a pilot, a groundbreaking (airbreaking?) woman, American Airlines’ first female Captain, Beverley Bass, as well as assorted locals.
Sankoff & Hein’s music reflects Newfoundland’s Celtic roots. You can even hear strains of Appalachia and a bit of Cajun in it. Hot-blooded and rousing, it’s easy to listen to.
The problem is that virtually the entire score sounds the same. Plus, most numbers feature the entire company, so with the exception of Bass, who gets the best and only character-revealing song, we never get to know the main characters musically. Ain’t that kinda one of the purposes of musical comedies? (Think of the songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Sondheim, or even last year’s Tony winner, The Band’s Visit, which also dealt with stranded people, only with a brilliant idiosyncratic score).
I realize that if each character got his or her own song it would vastly inflate the show’s 100-minute running time but, as it is, I never felt I got to know these people except in a cursory way. This is especially troublesome for the pissy gay couple who, as presented with a certain glibness, I’d happily avoid.
That aside, I enjoyed Come From Away more at the Saenger, perhaps because I went in with lower expectations. Certainly the cast, all of whom play multiple characters, instantaneously changing among them, was as good, if not better, than Broadway, particularly Becky Gulsvig as Beverley Bass. Christopher Ashley’s Tony Award-winning direction, aided by the oftentimes stylized musical staging of Kelly Devine, is lovely and keeps clear the many strands of the plot.
If, at times, the passengers come off as a bit whiny, their subsequent generosity towards their Canadian hosts restores your faith in humanity. (I’ve enjoyed reading about reunions that have been held in Gander, the town where the show takes place.) Ironically, as horrific as the events of that tragic day were, Come From Away does engender a certain nostalgia for that time when the world came together instead of turning on others, as too often seems to be the case now.
Coming to the Saenger June 14-16 is the Cyndi Lauper/Harvey Fierstein Tony-winner Kinky Boots. Boots, in which drag queens help save a British shoe factory from closing, is another instance where I enjoyed the touring version more than Broadway’s. Coming just after New Orleans’ Pride Festival, it offers the perfect opportunity to keep the celebrations going.
Shear Madness at Le Petit, June 14-30
[JPAS’ production of Shear Madness transfers to Le Petit this month. Here are excerpts from my October 2018 review.]
Having somehow never seen Shear Madness anywhere in the last four decades, I approached its New Orleans metro area debut, courtesy of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, knowing little more than that this “comedy-whodunit takes place in the ‘Shear Madness’ hairstyling salon, and during the course of the action, a murder is committed, and the audience gets to spot the clues, question the suspects, and solve the mystery.”
I expected it to be silly, and it was. But it was also very entertaining, quite involving, and extremely well-done. I can see why it’s been sooo popular.
Part of the genius of Shear Madness is that it mutates into virtually a new play with each different production, as local references get put in (Morris Bart, Ochsner Hospital, The Times-Picayune, Chris Owens) and others are updated (Uber, Tinder, Stormy Daniels), keeping the material super fresh. [I suspect there’ll be some new references for the Le Petit run.]
Apparently, Director Kris Shaw and the cast had free rein to fine-tune the script, and they went at it with wicked glee, adding their own terrible puns and naughty wordplay. Whether good or bad, these just keep coming and coming, including some funny jibes at Mitch Landrieu’s expense, and the worst Viagra joke ever.
Shear Madness gets off to a wacky start involving mistaken identities. After a while, however, it begins to bog down into a daffy episode of NCIS: New Orleans. Never fear, as just then, the cast breaks the fourth wall, the audience becomes involved, and the murder eventually gets solved with a Perry Mason-like ending. Whether it’s the absolute “funniest mystery in the annals of crime,” I’ll leave to you to decide, but it certainly delivers lotsa laughs.
Shaw wisely has his cast invest Madness with as much real emotion as possible; to camp it up would simply be too much. All six actors (Glenn Boyer, Jonathan Damaré, John Detty, Casey Groves, Alison Logan, Janet Shea), playing various suspects and investigators, hit just the right level of tomfoolery.
As ridiculous as the show is, I now appreciate how it can run and run, as each performance is unique, thus encouraging repeat visits. JPAS has done itself proud with this Madness.
As we enter the relatively quiet month of June, there seems to be fairly few theatrical offerings on the horizon. All the more reason to take advantage of NOLA’s (temporary) social calm and go see all of them.
The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane will open its 26th summer season by presenting Much Ado About Nothing from June 14-30. This has been one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s comedies since seeing it on Broadway, and then again on TV with Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes as the battling lovers, Beatrice and Benedick. That production reset the play after the Spanish-American War in a middle American town. Will Director Burton Tedesco keep the original 16th century Sicilian port setting? Or relocate it elsewhere? Head to the Lupin Theater on Tulane’s Uptown campus to find out.
On the same campus, at Dixon Hall, the Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane opens its season with the Tony Award-winning tap dance extravaganza 42nd Street (June 20-23), directed and choreographed by Diane Lala.
Featuring such songs as Shuffle Off to Buffalo, We’re in the Money, I Only Have Eyes for You, Lullaby of Broadway and the title tune, and inspired by Busby Berkeley’s iconic 1933 movie musical, 42nd Street tells the story of famed director Julian Marsh mounting a musical during the height of the Great Depression. When he loses his leading lady just before opening, Marsh looks to a chorus girl to save the day, giving us the classic line “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”
Elizabeth Argus and Chris Carey head the cast, which also includes Sean Patterson and Keith & Leslie Claverie.
On the North Shore, Playmakers of Covington (19106 Playmakers Rd.) will give a new twist to 1776 (June 21–July 7), the Tony-winning musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The cast, founding fathers and all, will be played by men and women. I greatly admired NOCCA’s 2016 production in which the entire cast was female. I look forward to seeing how a co-ed company will turn out.
In Mandeville, 30 by Ninety Theatre brings back the Stephen Sondheim/Larry Gelbart/Burt Shevelove classic, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,which marries Plautus to vaudeville. Mistaken identities, slamming doors, and a showgirl or two all combine to furnish “comedy tonight!” Forum runs June 15-30 at 880 Lafayette Street in Mandeville.
“Weird Al” Yankovic (yup, he’s still around, with four Grammys and a recent #1 album on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart) brings his Strings Attached tour to the Saenger on June 13 for an evening of hits and classics, backed by a full symphony orchestra. Background singers too. As he said, “We’re pulling out all the stops for this one.” Expect to hear his hit parodies of hit songs including Eat It, Like A Surgeon, and Smells Like Nirvana.
And sounding almost as wild as “Weird Al”, if not wilder, Vagabond Inventions will be hosting A Kingdom, A CAR WASH, an evening of zany entertainment and actual car washes, to benefit the company’s upcoming national tour, at the Allways Lounge’s Twilight Room (1040 Marigny St.) on June 16.
What qualifies as “zany entertainment?” “Interpretive ballets, live music, photo opportunities, a junk garden gallery, a kiddie pool, and an array of other shenanigans” as well as “car washes in evening gowns.” It promises to be a Sunday evening (and afternoon; the car washes and ballets start at 4pm) of “unforgettable nonsense.” It sounds like it will live up to its promise!
Please send press releases and notices of your upcoming shows to Brian Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org.