Jewels of Paris: A Revolutionary New Musical Review
Scrumbly Koldewyn (original music & lyrics); Rob Keefe & Martin Worman (additional lyrics); Keefe, Koldewyn, Alex Kinney & Andy Wenger (sketches)
Walking into the green, wooden Hypnodrome next to a Highway 80 overpass, audience members are greeted by variously clad and semi-clad characters with colorful, sparkling make-up and big, welcoming smiles. Coming to see a Thrillpeddlers production is one of those only-in-San-Francisco experiences that actually has its roots in a small, Paris, France theatre of 1894. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (the Theatre of the Big Puppet) was a theatre that specialized in naturalistic horror shows and remained open and in production of original plays until 1962. Thrillpeddlers has continued that long tradition for the past twenty years by performing “authentic Grand Guignol horror plays, outrageous Theatre of the Ridiculous musicals, and spine-tingling, lights-out spook shows” (from the company’s website). In 2009, Thrillpeddlers expanded their local fame and audience by reviving over the next half dozen years several of the original Cockette (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cockettes) shows of the early 1970s (e.g., the multi-year-running Pearls over Shanghai).
An original Cockette and still the keeper and reviver of their original scores and lyrics, Thrillpeddlars’ Scumbly Kolewyn creates many of the current troupe’s musical shows (including this world premiere) and is always the delightful, smiling piano player in the corner (sometimes in drag, sometimes not). Jewels of Paris is described by the company as “inspired by the artistic revolution erupting in Paris nearly a century ago” and as “a time-traveling, tuneful testament that revels in love, life, artistic, social, and sexual change.”
A description that lofty sets expectations high of seeing show that reflects a century of Paris’s endeavors. In fact, the opening ensemble number (Everyone’s a Genius in Paree Today) introduces us to many of the famous and infamous of early 20th-Century Paris (reminiscent of the curtain-riser of Ragtime where we meet America’s luminaries of the same period). The rousing foot-tapper, sung quite well by this cast of sixteen, raises our hopes for a fun evening as we watch Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Pierrot, Jospehine Baker, and others proclaim the wonderfulness of their beloved Paris. What follows is a series of short skits and songs that provide glimpses into the often seedier but also artsy side of Paris. Unfortunately, the journey is a bit up and down in terms of both quality of singing and comic appeal as the first half progresses. Sketches often end with a pregnant pause before a polite applause, and some lines are just lost in the way delivered. Too many soloists and back-up singers are not vocally or dance-wise ready to perform what has been cleverly created for them. The one exception the first half is Roxanne Redmeat’s At the Sideshow, a real torch number about what it is like to live the life of what others describe as a ‘freak.’ The first half ends with another rambuctious, full-cast number C’est La Bouche where first-night over-singing by a few members lessened the overall effect.
As maybe the cast settled into the opening night, the second act faired much better musically. Noah Haydon, a cross-dresser of somewhat indeterminate sex, steals the show and the night with his moving Singer in a Café. His gorgeous baritone is a joy, and he performs without the wild hand and arm movements of some of his fellow actors in their moments in the spotlight. On the more risqué side, Lisa McHenry brings the house down as Marie Antoinette (along with her three ladies-in-waiting) as she responds to the hungry masses of Paris, Let Them Eat Cock. Her hunky, quite naked guardsmen follow with their own hilarious and totally X-rated Come Eat Me, Eat Me, Eat Me. Paris’s history of torture as well as libertine sexuality is musically reveled (and graphically illustrated) as the Marquis de Sade (Andy Wenger) leads the troupe in L’Hotel Dungereaux -- the kind of kinky, full-exposed number that is a standard for Thrillpeddlers and is loved (and hooted at) by its very loyal audience.
Any evening at Thrillpeddlers is totally enhanced by its performers-turned-make-up artists (advised by Michael Soldier) and by creative, often elaborate costuming (designed by Tina Sogliuzzo and Birdie-Bob Watt). Faces, lips, hair, and even eyes are full of color and glitz and are wild to behold. Costumes are of the time (hooped skirts for can-cans, e.g.), change often, and then also come off frequently (since sans-costumes is very Thrillpeddler). Coupled with the brightly painted floors and walls that remind one of French, artistic trends, there is a lot to behold with the eyes.
In the end, the evening is quite a romp. It could be much better if the skits were funnier and the cast more universally able to sing and dance as required by Kolewyn’s et al creation. But, my guess is that before the run closes May 2, things will greatly improve to match past Thillpeddler performances I have seen.
Rating: 3 E