Is a show that’s in bad taste necessarily a bad show? Is a tasteful show always better?
The three full productions from the first week of the 16thannual New York Musical Festival suggest some answers to these questions.
Illuminati Lizards from Outer Space
Tina is a beauty queen who is dethroned when the pageant organizer accuses her of being an “illegal alien” – she’s from Canada. She winds up at Savra Wellness Centre for Spiritual and Mental Wellbeing, which is actually a front for a group of lizard aliens from outer space who were sent to colonize the planet Earth. They’ve bungled their mission, and their boss lizard back at their home planet has given them just a week more before he sends space ships to destroy Earth. Tina, who is initially unaware they are alien lizards (they’re disguised as human), organizes a pageant for ugly people in order to lure the mass of human beings into the lizards’ lair.
Little evident effort has gone into making the plot even remotely coherent. I suppose this would matter less if more of the jokes were funny, or fewer of the songs (both the pop rock music and the lyrics) were so generic, or if the show’s attempts at parody were pointed. But, with the exception of an unexpected resolution, there is not much fresh or sharp by the creative team of book writer/lyricist Paul Western-Pittard and composer/arranger Yuri Worontschak. Their idea of political wit is a passing reference to “an Orangutan who thinks it’s president.” The quality cast does what it can, especially in some powerhouse singing, but for all their talents, “Illuminati Lizards from Outer Space” feels pointless. It’s also close to witless, and occasionally tasteless. In one song, one of the alien lizards sings:
“Swinging it every which way is really ok,
Trans, kinky, les, and gay
Bi, bi alien all the way
Try try an alien all the way.”
It’s unlikely that the lyricists meant to dismiss gay men and lesbians as equivalent to kinky alien reptiles. They simply didn’t think this through…like most of the show.
It’s hard to understand why NYMF organizers made “Illuminati Reptiles from Outer Space” the opening production of the festival.
Illuminati Lizards from Outer Space, Signature Theatre Center. Remaining showtime: Saturday July 13 at 9 p.m.
Talk about bad dates. Rose poisons all of hers – until she meets Harry, who stabs all of his. The two serial killers thwart their mutual assassination attempt, and instead get to know one another: He reminisces that his first kill was the family cat (“they showed him more love than to me”); hers, she sings, was her drunken, abusive father.
“Just like me in another body,” they sing together about each other, in marvel.
They begin dating, together picking up hitchhikers to kill them, but have a lovers’ quarrel when Rose fails to kill a teenage girl who reminds her of herself at that age.
The romantic coupling of two killers is not novel, but previously, the approach has been outrageously dark comedy like the 1985 movie “Prizzi’s Honor” with Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson, the 1989 movie “The War of the Roses” with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” the 2005 Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie vehicle that doubled as an action thriller. “Buried” instead is a jarring mix of tones. Its nine songs are mostly lilting melodies with well-crafted lyrics that are often poignant. Most would fit any serious love story, which provokes a nagging question: Is that what “Buried” is supposed to be?
The creative team of Tom Williams and Cordelia O’Driscoll at times uses the incongruity in what seems like a blunt and awkward attempt at a large metaphor. Rose tells Harry she is a vegan, and she sees no contradiction in this, launching into a rant about the African children who mine cobalt for cell phones, working 12-hour shifts and dying from the exposure. “From where I’m standing, everyone’s guilty of murder. We’re just the only ones with the balls to enjoy it. They’re the fucking hypocrites. “
Interspersed with the scenes between Rose and Harry (and their victims), are segments supposedly from a television series entitled “The Psychopath Next Door” in which the host and a scientist discuss what sounds like actual research into psychopathology, including whether and how psychopaths can love. But there is a jokey feel to these segments, which is confusing, and they end in a twist that is even more confusing and, yes, in bad taste – offering a more explicit illustration of what’s more subtly problematic in the musical as a whole.
Buried. Signature Theater Center. Remaining showtimes: Saturday at 5 pm, Sunday at 1 pm.
Alice and Mary are teenage sisters from Ireland who are living in poverty in London in 1789. Out of hunger, they shoplift two handkerchiefs, and are sentenced to seven years …in Australia. This, incredibly, was the fate of some 25,000 18th century British women who were deported to Australia for petty crimes under the Transportation Act. At the time the law was reportedly promoted as a humane alternative to incarceration in London’s brutal prisons, but, according to “Ladyship,” it was part of a plan hatched between the government and private enterprise to provide brides for the out-of-control men already in the Australian penal colony and thus tame them.
Alice and Mary are sent on a ship with 200 other female prisoners – represented by four actresses portraying a cross-section: a 11-year-old street-smart Scottish orphan, a sassy middle-aged wit, an overworked mother separated from her children, an aristocratic woman done in by her gambling husband. Together they endure hardships during the long voyage, some of it inflicted by the men on board – represented by four actors, who portray variously respectful characters or brutes.
“Ladyship” is told in some 20 songs, one more lively or lovely than the one before it, accompanied by a trio of violin, guitar and piano. The duets are a particular treat (which makes sense, since the composers/creators are twin sisters Laura Good and Linda Good, who perform as the musical duo The Twigs): I Need An Anchor, between the aristocrat Lady Jane and the decent and deep-voiced Captain; Ready to Begin, between Mary and Finn, the nicest and sexiest of the seaman; and No Matter Where I’m Bound, between Alice and Mary, which reflects what could be called the uplifting, protofeminist solidarity in much of the score:
Do you remember running
faster than the river
twirling like the leaves as they fell down racing up the hills from the tide
and God was on our side
I remember running
chasing all the chickens
I could never settle down
ma said, you’re so strong for a girl
Too strong for this world
I’ll be better
as long as you’re around
no matter where we’re bound
Those aboard dance at one point a pleasing Scottish reel. The show even includes the most melodic birth scene I’ve ever witnessed.
But the ten-month ordeal that the women face on board begins to take its toll on me as well. I think I understand why it is that the Goods chose to set their musical almost entirely aboard ship (save for some opening scenes on the streets of London and in a courthouse) – why the show ends before the women reach shore. But, with a running time of two hours including intermission, the show starts to feel claustrophobic, too many of the songs and situations coming off as too much the same. These sails could be trimmed.
Still, “Ladyship” seems sure to travel. If everything about it feels so tasteful – the costumes, the women’s demeanor, the evocative lyrics, even the harshness and despair – good taste turns out to be a good thing.
Ladyship at Signature Theater Center. Remaining showtimes: Saturday at 1 pm., Sunday at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m