The Blob–The Musical
at Live Bait Theater
The Wicked and the Sexed
WNEP Theater Foundation
at Famous Door Theatre
By Adam Langer
Like stage adaptations, novelizations of films, and theater criticism, satire is a secondhand art, relying on what came before it to justify its existence. But used intelligently and wittily, it can be a powerful weapon. It can also be a dangerous one, damaging careers and forever changing how we perceive our culture. Especially in our jaded society–where this morning’s tear-jerking headline becomes fodder for a talk-show host’s late-night monologue–satire has the power to change our perceptions instantaneously and forever. Many times, for better or worse, the satire has more staying power than what it’s satirizing: like an irritating ad jingle or the macarena, even the most rudimentary satire can work its way into the brain, and once there it’s nearly impossible to dislodge.
Try watching the famous playing-chess-with-death scene in Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal without having it ruined by the memory of some flippant spoof in a Woody Allen movie or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Ask me to describe key elements in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, and what comes to mind is not some beautiful poetic passage but an image of Groucho Marx muttering, “Pardon me while I take a strange interlude. Why, you two baboons! What makes you think I’d marry either one of you?” And I’ve always been appalled by Chevy Chase’s presumptuous assertion that his fumbling, bumbling impersonation of Gerald Ford is what swung the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. But who knows? Maybe he was right.
It is precisely this dangerous yet intoxicating power that makes half-baked spoofs and limp parodies so frustrating. Satire can be valuable when it has a political purpose or makes an artistic or social statement–it can be the “sacred weapon” Pope described in 1738. Certainly I’ve enjoyed my share of Mad magazine movie spoofs and feel that Airplane! performed a valuable social service by getting 1970s Hollywood out of the star-studded disaster-movie business. But weak, otherwise purposeless parody for parody’s sake provides precious little of social value. When satire amounts to being a wiseass without any particular point of view, the art is an empty one.
Two new musicals in town–The Wicked and the Sexed, a lampoon of Kennedy-era soft-core romantic fiction, and The Blob–The Musical, a spoof of 1950s monster movies–join a growing number of pointless large-scale parodies, like Austin Powers and a passel of post-1975 Mel Brooks comedies, that get their yuks out of poking fun at genres that had no great merit to begin with.
A collaboration between playwright David Sinker and composer Todd Scales, the Id/Ego production The Blob–The Musical aims low, skewering an oft-seen staple of Saturday afternoons: the creature feature in which a group of greasers and their bobby-soxer gals try to thwart the titular blob, which is literally eating into their idyllic middle-American community. Though the idea of attacking a dumb drive-in movie whose primary contribution to American cinema was the introduction of Steve McQueen immediately evokes the question why?, the show holds out hope for some lowbrow fun on the order of the musicals Little Shop of Horrors, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and (God help us!) Grease. But The Blob fails to approach even their level of sophistication.
A comedy like this, relying on such easy targets, needs to be played either over-the-top or as straight as a Leslie Nielsen cop. But this production provides neither suspense nor much madcap hilarity. The blob–which at times resembles a sock puppet, a California raisin, or Jerry Seinfeld with a T-shirt pulled over his head–got the most laughs from the opening-night audience with belches at key points. Littered with lame PG-13 sex jokes (“All I know is that it ate my aunt–that’s more than my uncle would do”) and predictable cannibal humor (the blob eats “moo goo gai man” and finger sandwiches), The Blob–The Musical even rips off a line from Airplane!: “I’m gonna stop sniffing airplane glue.” The whole show has the feel of a high school musical-variety event stuffed in a time capsule more than 30 years ago, then revived. Even the sub-Mad song parodies, sung to 50s tunes, feel canned and forced: Elvis Presley’s “(Won’t You Be My) Teddy Bear” becomes the blob’s “(Won’t You Be My) Dinner Date.”
Performed with a knowing wiseacre quality by a smart and gifted cast (particularly notable are the delightfully deadpan Randall Gary Craig as a variety of respectable adults, steady Mike Shreeman as an all-American lad, and the irrepressible Gabrielle Sanalitro in three appropriately insane roles), this slow-witted musical comedy has only one discernible purpose: to tell us how preposterous 50s sci-fi and monster movies were. And most of us learned that a long time ago.
WNEP Theater Foundation’s The Wicked and the Sexed (or TWATS, the acronym WNEP so cleverly supplies) is at least a more sophisticated and intelligent parody, but its target is equally puzzling. Perhaps searching for the one genre that hasn’t been spoofed to death, playwright Lori McClain and composer and lyricist Jeffrey L. Shivar settled on a kind of literature that’s escaped satire most likely because no one has read any of it in more than 30 years: trashy 1960s erotic fiction. WNEP’s first such parody–the 1994 Monte LaGrosjambe Presents…Sex Est Une Femme, which lampooned three separate steamy 60s bedtime stories–made me wonder why anyone would satirize a genre that had almost completely disappeared, except for the occasional volume on sale for a quarter at a Hegewisch garage sale. It resembled any number of pointless SCTV skits in which great time and care were taken to impersonate marginal Canadian TV personalities or George Lucas. Three years later, in this expanded adaptation of one story in Monte LaGrosjambe–a novel of political and romantic intrigue, The Satyr, by James McKimmey Jr.–the question remains: Why bother?
For the most part, this soap opera about a philanderer who woos the daughter of an old flame and jeopardizes her husband’s rising political career is played straight. And to be fair, the WNEP cast is convincing and committed as a variety of martini-swilling, slim-tie-sporting early-60s types. (Particularly good are Don Hall as the politically powerful but sexually impotent newspaper magnate Charles Bickfour, who suggests a combination of Charles Foster Kane and Homer Simpson, and playwright McClain as Bickfour’s slinky, sex-starved assistant, part Laura Petrie and part Agent 99 from Get Smart.) But since the drama is based on dated, trashy romances, it’s difficult to care in the slightest about the dull saga of the Bickfours or to be more than slightly amused by it.
Into the mix WNEP tosses some stupid, out-of-place drag turns. Shivar’s simple yet tuneful melodies, genre parodies, and witty (if occasionally forced) lyrics seem to come out of a different musical altogether–i.e., a decent one. Cruising along from Nancy Sinatra-style pop ditties to gospel to torch songs, Shivar demonstrates a facility for music that neither McClain nor novelist McKimmey has for drama. In a show bereft of an engrossing plot and relevant satire, the songs hang in a void, isolated, as confidently and intelligently performed as if they were not part of yet another pointless satire.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Blob–The Musical theater still; The Wicked and the Sexed theater still by Edward S. Donahue.