Varla Jean Merman’s Stand By Your Drag at Cafe Istanbul
In July, I went to a Comedy Festival at the New Orleans Arena. Other than Tiffany Haddish, who was very funny, I laughed more at Varla Jean Merman’s Stand By Your Drag than all the other comics combined. Why hasn’t Ms. Merman yet gotten her own sitcom?
Stand By Your Drag, Varla’s (she really needs only one name) latest cabaret extravaganza, features the videos, the songs, the shtik that we have come to know and love her for. But it’s also something more. Its title is not merely a play on the iconic Tammy Wynette song, but a plea to support drag performers in these crazy times as multiple states have passed anti-LGBTQ laws in general and anti-drag laws in particular. As tho drag queens reading books to kids in a library was more dangerous than allowing anyone anywhere anytime to carry an unconcealed gun [insert eye-rolling emoji here].
So when Varla says she “had to use the Underground Railroad to get to [Provincetown] Massachusetts” from Florida, that’s not minimizing the route enslaved people used to get to the North, but acknowledging the very real threat that drag performers, particularly in Southern Red states, are now facing.
Of course, Stand By Your Drag offers more than political commentary, however vital it might be. Varla pokes fun at herself and last year’s “Tic-Taccident” with her opening number that reconfigures Sir Elton’s hit into “I’m Still Standing…Barely” with the invaluable Brian Johnston doing the terpsichorean work as the “Dancing Varla”.
The Dynamic Duo get more mileage out of the “Tic-Taccident” in another hysterical number with Brian (if I can call Varla by her first name, why not Brian too?) as a Tic-Tac box. Varla, ever gracious, gives a nod to Fatsy Cline whose skit at the Krewe of Armeinius Ball earlier this year inspired it.
Varla’s timing is impeccable as she drolly assures us “I don’t do drugs” before waiting just the perfect number of seconds to add “every day”. Referring to herself as “a petite package of femininity” she namechecks everyone from Simone Biles to Hogan’s Heroes in “Your Drag Queen” which is accompanied by a snazzy video. After dancing her way thru the song, Varla may sound like an out-of-breath walrus, but trouper that she is, she keeps going.
The first part of Stand By Your Drag ends with what just might be the funniest doggie video ever; Varla’s game pooch Jasper stars in it to the tune of “I Will Survive.”
Varla Jean Merman and Jasper
If the shorter second act has a higher quotient of material on Florida’s political situation and drag queens, tending a tad towards the polemical, most of it funny, all of it fearless, we also get five more musical showstoppers, including “Everybody Wants a RuPaul Girl” (to the tune of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) and “We’re Still Here”, a Sondheimesque tribute to drag queens from vaudeville to today.
Written by Jeffery Roberson, Jacques Lamarre, & Ricky Graham, and directed by Michael Schiralli, Stand By Your Drag filters Varla’s patented ditzy bitchiness through humor high and low to achieve brilliant lunacy. I’ll stand by that any day.
[For Ms. Merman’s upcoming schedule, go to https://varlajean.com/]
A Wonderful World at the Saenger Theatre
A Wonderful World, a new, supposedly Broadway-bound musical about the life and loves of Louis Armstrong recently had its world premiere here at the Saenger Theatre.
On one hand, it features a cast full of great voices lead by James Monroe Iglehart as Armstrong; vibrant choreography by Rickey Tripp, sumptuous costumes by Toni-Leslie James; and impressive, atmospheric sets and projections by Adam Koch & Steven Royal.
And of course such classic songs as “Basin Street Blues”, “All That Meat and No Potatoes”, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, “Avalon”, “Do You Know What It Means?”, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”, “You Rascal You”, “After You’ve Gone”, and “What a Wonderful World”. And those are just some of the numbers in the first act! As bio-jukebox musicals go, it doesn’t get much better than the score for A Wonderful World.
All this combines to provide a very entertaining evening.
James Monroe Iglehart (center) and company in A Wonderful World (photo by Jeremy Daniel)
On the other hand, though, Aurin Squire’s book attempts the impossible task of fitting 71 years of Armstrong’s complicated life into 3 hours. Sure, it focuses on the four main women in his life, but ultimately Armstrong’s legacy and genius come up short. One longs for a greater exploration of any of the four chapters (New Orleans, Chicago, Hollywood, New York) that make up A Wonderful World and the notable personages that populate them.
For example, I suspect a three character drama featuring Armstrong Hattie McDaniel and Lincoln Perry (aka Stepin Fetchit, a character here) could make for a fascinating exploration of the challenges Blacks faced in pre–WWII Hollywood and how three stars of that era dealt with them
As it is, A Wonderful World rarely becomes emotionally involving and only two moments in it provided the thrilling electrical charge of authentic creative genius, both wordless: a scatting duet between Armstrong and King Joe Oliver (Gavin Gregory), and an exuberant tap routine by Perry (DeWitt Fleming, Jr.).
Many of the components of A Wonderful World are wonderful indeed, but, for now, it’s too much potatoes and not enough meat.
[Next up at the Saenger is another jukebox bio-musical, MJ the Musical, about Michael Jackson, playing November 1-12. For tickets and more info, go to https://www.saengernola.com/events/mj-the-musical/]
Broken Codes at Big Couch through October 27
As a critic, I try to be as supportive of the arts community, in general, and of the theater community, in particular, as possible. As an occasional playwright, I know how difficult and challenging it is to create a play and bring it to the stage. And, full disclosure, I have served on the Big Easy Theater Committee with Stephanie Garrison for many years and have nothing but respect for her.
I thus take no pleasure in stating that Garrison’s new play Broken Codes presented by Fat Squirrel at Big Couch (3400 St. Claude Ave.) would need a lot of repair work to allow it to become a fully satisfying evening of theater.
Taking place in “the near future” of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana, after a devastating flood has caused there to be “no inland”, Broken Codes details the struggles of two young freedom fighters against the powerful Megaport, an organization that, fascist-like, has taken over every aspect of the region in its dystopian “new normal.”
So Danny (Drew Stroud) and Val (Bethany Joy Lee) battle for survival and liberation against the evil Leslie (Mary Bliss McCrossen), Megaport’s leader, and her henchman and occasional lover Remy (Nicolas A. Lewis).
Broken Codes features double-crosses and suicide missions, mutilations and explosions, sex and romance all of which, one would think, would make for edge-of-your seat drama.
Alas, it does not turn out that way.
Garrison’s heart is certainly in the right place as she employs the sci-fi thriller genre to reveal the economic inequities and ecological challenges of our times. Yet despite the putatively exciting plot, Broken Codes lacks any narrative tension. We get scene after scene after scene, all talky and visually static. Cutesy drinking games of the “Never have I ever…” variety (an inspiration, in part, for the play according to an author’s note), substitute exposition for true character development. Because of this, we never become emotionally invested in Danny and Val nor their exploits. Towards the end, Broken Codes veers, unintentionally, into campiness.
If I admire Fat Squirrel for giving a new play like this a full production rather than workshopping it forever and ever, I can’t help but wonder if it might have benefitted from a little more developmental time and some dramaturgical input.
Similarly, Director Cammie West did Garrison no favors by staging so many scenes with very little action or even movement; watching two people, in however many different combinations, just sitting and talking simply becomes tedious after a while. As a director of a new play, West should’ve worked with Garrison to trim anything extraneous from the script; instead, she allowed unnecessary videos to remain. Overlong scene changes on Jesse Wales’ set also take away from the show’s momentum. Rather than a two-act, two hour Broken Codes, I can envision the same story told in a tauter, 90 minute one-act production.
Given the, ahem, soggy material, the cast does the best they can to bring it to life with Stroud and Lee doing a bit better than McCrossen and Lewis.
New-fangled items like drones and computer algorithms play a part in Broken Codes’ high stakes tale. One wishes, however, there had also been the charge that comes from good ol’ fashioned storytelling.
[For more information and tickets, go to https://fatsquirrelnola.square.site/product/broken-codes/25?cs=true&cst=custom]
Let the Right One In at Le Petit through October 22
Imperfect as it is, at least Broken Codes is a homegrown, original script from a local playwright. Le Petit has Let the Right One In on its stage which is by British playwright Jack Thorne based on the novel by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist about a bullied teenager who develops a friendship with a girl who turns out to be a vampire. Which would be fine if Let the Right One In simply wasn’t so bad.
Let me be clear, the production at Le Petit is excellent. Joey Moro’s scenic design uses sliding panels which combine with James Lanius III’s projections to create beautiful images of woods and other locales. Nick Shackleford’s topnotch sound design, full of clanging doors and thumping chords, amps up the show’s eeriness quotient.
The cast are all good and do what’s asked of them by Director Salvatore Mannino, who may direct at a funereal pace but it seems a tempo imposed by the moody script itself. (It reminded me of the Scandinavian film Pelle the Conqueror which may have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but whose plodding pace bored me to tears. What is it with these Scandinavians?)
In a series of short scenes we meet Oskar (Dalton Major) whose Mum (Wendy Miklovic) enjoys a bit too much wine. That she’s kinda bitchy may be because she’s still bitter over Oskar’s father leaving her for a man. Oskar may be gay, too, or not, but he’s certainly dweeby and his school’s bullies pick on him mercilessly. Then young Eli (Caylee Sanders) comes along who seems to be involved with Hakan, who’s old enough to be her father, and she and Oskar hang out in the playground and talk and talk and talk until she finally takes care of those bullies just when, well, you can imagine.
Caylee Sanders and Dalton Major in Let the Right One In
Stringing together the notes I made in my program, it’s unnecessarily drawn out, superficial, would-be metaphysical drivel that becomes unintentionally campy long before its ending. Even as Halloween shows go (anything done in October qualifies as Halloween-ish, eh?), Let the Right One In is neither scary nor fun.
The biggest mystery here is why, out of all the hundreds, even thousands, of potential scripts to choose from, Le Petit decided to spend its resources on this one. According to the program, Le Petit’s Producing Executive Director Don-Scott Cooper was “captivated by the story” when he encountered the Swedish cinematic version of it and “wanted to bring this story to New Orleans”; he did so with “calls, letters, and pleas” to the various people involved with it.
Let’s hope Le Petit’s new Artistic Director A.J. Allegra, who formerly headed The NOLA Project, will do better as he begins programming future seasons.
[For more info about Let the Right One In and other upcoming shows at Le Petit, go to https://www.lepetittheatre.com/]