Moonlight Epics & Overtures

at the Theatre Building

Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s Grease paid homage to the innocent 50s (innocent, one presumes, because the authors were innocent then)–it encapsulated, glorified, and ultimately reaffirmed 50s icons and values. Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show, on the other hand, despite its campy-nostalgic humor used the familiar symbols of the horror films of the 30s and 40s to deliver a message very different from the models on which it was based. According to O’Brien, sexual license was the main threat posed by movie “monsters” to a prudish society more ruthless and immoral in its efforts to repress nonconformity than the monsters it would have destroyed. (The “menace” in The Rocky Horror Show is a libertine scientist who creates himself a perfect lover, for which crime they both must die–after the “good” characters have partaken of and enjoyed the hypnotic attractions of the libidinous creatures.) Now, with that same society taking an increasingly conservative view of “unnatural” life- styles, O’Brien’s call for tolerance bears repeating. And Lobo a Go-Go once again raises the banner of sexual freedom.

Written by Jeff Richmond (with additional book and lyrics by John Cameron), Lobo a Go-Go draws on the 1941 Lon Chaney classic The Wolf Man in much the same way The Rocky Horrow Show does on the classic 1931 Frankenstein. The story, told through an extended flashback by an aging lounge singer named Johnny Silver, recounts the events at Woodrow Wilson High School’s 1959 Harvest Moon Semiformal. On this autumn night, all is not well: because Dean and Jamie, the Harvest Moon king and queen, have had a lovers’ spat and broken up, both are vulnerable to seduction by the dropouts from across the tracks, Karl and Mimi. (Mimi introduces herself by announcing: “I am your mother’s worst nightmare and your father’s wet dream!” The squeaky-clean Jamie replies, “Cool it, Mattressback–this is my turf.”) Furthermore, a werewolf is rumored to be prowling the district, preying upon unescorted young females. There is a full moon; dense woods surround the school grounds. What will become of these all-American girls and boys on this magic night? Why have Johnny Silver and the Bullets, usually the headliners at the sinister Lobo a Go-Go club, suddenly been booked to play a school dance? And who is the werewolf wiping out the virginal student body of Woodrow Wilson High?

Along the way to answering these questions we get, among other things, a stichomythic musical dialogue between the men’s and women’s choruses (a la the “Tell Me More” number in Grease), a carpe diem manifesto warning the young people that “Before the well of youth runs dry / You’d better grab at every chance / At every torrid, hot romance” (a la “Don’t Dream It, Be It” in The Rocky Horror Show), a Rodgers and Hammerstein-style hoedown (a la “The Farmer and the Cowman” in Oklahoma), and flashes of Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and probably many others I didn’t catch the first time around. Lobo a Go-Go is not merely a period pastiche–in fact the period is rather indistinct. The text sets the play in 1959, though the term “a-go-go” did not emerge until the mid-60s, and Jamie the Moon Queen wears a hairdo not fashionable until 1963. Like O’Brien, Richmond has cleverly manipulated not only the symbols of 50s and 60s culture but those of later parodies of the period as well. The result is a highly original and biting commentary on an oppressive society that turns its children into monsters with impossible demands for achievement.

The success of this kind of play, however, lies not in its literary merit but in the fun it has with its thesis. Lobo a Go-Go is lucky to have Alexandra Billings, fresh from the long-running Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, in the role of the slinky Mimi. More statuesque than a control tower at O’Hare, and with a voice strong and clear enough to repave a mile of Belmont Avenue, Billings displays a poise that allows her to command the stage from her first entrance–riding a motorcycle through the front door of the theater. She holds the werewolf in the palm of her hand. “Maybe I can help you,” she says at one point. “A couple of hot wax treatments, maybe a little paper training . . .” Then she turns and winks at the audience, so swiftly we almost miss it–she has us and she knows it. Michael Thomas, as Johnny Silver, is no less formidable, demonstrating that he is equally comic and take-charge in men’s clothes as in women’s (Thomas’s last appearance was in Bailiwick’s Drag Queens on Trial). Thomas and Billings are the anchors that keep this lightweight musical from floating away. Although Darren Stephens is a bit patrician for the loutish Karl, wearing at least a cow and a half’s worth of leather, he mines his role for every vein of its multidimensional humor: “Hey, I’m a rebel. I ride a hog. I write poems about unrequited love.”

With the exception of Jamie Pachino as the leader of the women’s chorus, the remainder of the cast are clearly less experienced than these three, but they give the play their enthusiastic all. Jordan Simonson makes a sweet and funny Leon, the introspective philosopher who discovers that he rather likes his new-found sexual freedom; Simonson also has a fine countertenor voice, one of the most difficult ranges. As Dean, Drew Barry is suitably square and straight-laced, as is Gayla Goehl as Jamie the Golden Girl–though she never truly delves into the social significance of her role, which has its dark side. Tina Callari as Madge the fundamentalist (“My mother says rock and roll is the devil’s music!”), Elizabeth Alison Holum as Trixie the naive ninnyhammer, and Pachino comprise a female chorus of fluffy petticoats and coiffures; Robert Stone, Gary Simmers, and Ed Kross–as Riff the smart-ass, Spike the musclehead, and Skipper the nerd–make a spritely pack of wolf hunters. Director/choreographer John Cameron keeps the pace lively and the steps simple but animated on the tiny West Stage of the Theatre Building.

Lobo a Go-Go may not provoke many coffee-fueled discussions of serious art, but you can dance to it just fine. Anyway, it’s spring, the war’s over, and isn’t it time we had some fun?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Stenberg.