Friday, May 25, 2018

"When Pigs Fly"

Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly
Conceived by Howard Crabtree & Mark Waldrop
Mark Waldrop (Sketches & Lyrics); Dick Gallagher (Music)

David Bicha
If we are to believe the opening scene, it all began when his Springbrook High vocational counselor, Miss Roundhole, suggested to a starry eyed Dream Curly (aka Howard Crabtree) that he could look forward to one of four vocational options: watch repair, plumber, garden supply, or chicken farming.  For Curly (who had come that day proudly dressed into her office in his “feathered chaps, sparkling vest, and false eyelashes”), the stage was his only real option for life -- a choice the dowdy Miss RH now on our stage replies snottily (as once did the real teacher of Howard’s) will only happen “when pigs fly.”

And so it came to pass (perhaps in part to spite the teacher) that Howard Crabtree grew up to become a prolific costume designer and cabaret performer as well as the creator of the Drama Desk winning musical review Whoop-Dee-Doo.  And just before he lost his battle with AIDS, the so-called Miss Roundhole’s prediction did indeed come true.  When Pigs Fly became his rollicking, over-the-top, simply FABULOUS (all caps, for sure) farewell that premiered Off-Broadway in August, 1996, one month after its co-creator had died, going on also to win his second Drama Desk Award for Best Musical Review.

Chris Plank, Philippe Gosselin, J. Conrad Frank, Ryan Vásquez & David Bicha
In 2003, New Conservatory Theatre Center opened a costume-crazy, rollercoaster-wild Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly that folks like myself still remember with huge grins -- a show that jabbed during the first Bush era with political glee the likes of Newt, Strom, and Rush.  Now fifteen years later and under the gleefully wicked direction of Ed Decker, NCTC pulls out all the stops to open a gloriously gay and glamorous, revised version of When Pigs Fly with many of the original, lyrically hilarious songs (by Mark Waldrop) but also with new tongue-tickling songs with catchy tunes (music by Dick Gallagher).  Costumes that rival San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon in their eye-popping silliness and ceiling-aspiring heights are more outlandish than ever (the creations of Wes Crain, Keri Fitch, and Jorge R. Hernández).  And in 2018, the current, orange-haired President and his Veep and Boyfriend (as in Vladimir) become the targets of some delicious, sex-saturated satire. 

As Howard’s Dream Curly himself lets us know in the opening number, what we are about to see is “a big party smorgasbord and a generous helping of ham.”  After all, “Brother, you ain’t seen a thing until you see bacon take to wing.”  Finally, just in case anyone has not figured it out, he sings, “The shows a queer one, no doubt; to be in it, you have to be out.”

Miss Roundtree was right about one thing but did not go far enough.  Howard’s Curly, as played by J. Conrad Frank, does have dreamily long eyelashes (who cares if they are indeed false) along with a smile that radiates to the last row of Decker Theatre.  He also sings with an exuberance that is absolutely contagious.  Howard is determined to put on a stage show that will prove wrong Miss RH’s dire predictions for his life – a stage extravaganza to be complete with a show-topping flying pig. 

David Bicha
But first he has to convince his pal, David Bicha, that a pig role is in his future, something David finds increasingly difficult to accept after having first to play a bubble-breasted mermaid with stage-filling hair in a number that totally falls apart (“Mermaid’s Song”).  He is also appalled to be cast as a tree in the Garden of Eden where his face is not seen (“Adam and Steve”) – another number that ends hardly before it begins as David stomps off the stage in gigantic, tree indignity. 

But just as he does playing Mrs. Roundtable, David does get to reign supreme as Carol Ann Knippel who is out to introduce in all her Carol Channing drag voice and looks the next season of “The Melody Barn,” a local theatre group that has decided to write its own musicals.  Watch out Quasimodo and Annie:  Your reincarnations are scary!

Also in Howard’s troupe of sparkly, glittering thespians are three more equally talented, comic actors extraordinaire.  All five must have a helluva time changing in a matter of scant minutes their oft-protruding costumes, oversized and over-ratted wigs (designed by David Carver Ford), and much-glitterized make-up.

Phillipe Gosselin, to the audience’s delight, is often called upon in the various roles he plays to bare his hairy, hunky chest, as in a shower scene (“Not All Man”) where when he emerges to show there is more to him than at first meets the eye, singing with much spunk and spark, “Why do they kid I’m not a man?”  Chris Plank time and again proves himself to be a comic king with facial expressions that draw many laughs, getting one of the night’s biggest applauses in “Bigger Is Better” -- a number where in feathered headdress, a body blown up bigger than a small truck, and beach-ball size bosoms he belts, “Would you rather ride a pogo stick or in a full-size limousine?”  After all, he continues blasting in true diva style, “Life is like a paycheck; a generous figure is always nice.”

Among the quintet of fine voices, Ryan Vásquez rises to the top with one that time and again singularly impresses with tones pure and pretty.  At the same time, he too is hilarious, as in a three-part “Torch Song” where he appears periodically throughout the evening to croon his love while fawning over pictures of Donald, then Mike, and finally Vladimir.  To Mike Pence, he teasingly sings in one of his many sexually laden come-ons, “You come from Indiana; I’m an East Coast laddie ... Doesn’t it make sense you’ll be my Hoosier daddy?” (with “Hoosier” getting extra and elongated emphasis). 

Chris Plank, J. Conrad Frank, Ryan Vásquez & David Bicha
All the boys also are marvelous in harmonies and comic antics when singing and dancing as an ensemble.  In such numbers as “You Can’t Take the Color Out of Colorado”, “Wear Your Vanity with Pride,” and the finale “Over the Top/When Pigs Fly,” the five don more of the incredible costumes that only get more and more kooky and kinky as the evening progresses.  They also carry out with ease the soft-shoe, high-step, or minuet choreography so farcically designed by Jayne Zaban.  Christopher Sauceda ensures the right quirkiness for fun-filled, well-timed sound effects while Robert Hahn highlights in the right spots and hues the twenty or so scenes and their songs with his lighting design.  As Music Director, Joe Wicht also reigns supreme at stage’s edge on the keyboards while Tim Vaughn is the unseen but very present drummer for the show.

In a music review so zany as Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly, not every number is going to work to the same stellar degree; and there are a couple in the NCTC evening that fall ever so slightly flat when compared to all the others.  But those are few and far between, and even they draw some laughs.  All in all, it would be difficult not to have a better night out on the town that New Conservatory Theatre Center’s Pigs, especially if looking to escape the ever-depressing headlines of the day’s news. 

After making visual love to a pop-up and chesty Vladimir Putin but then rejecting him with “Bad guys win ... Optimism’s wearing thin,” Ryan Vásquez reminds us in an upbeat note what is maybe the biggest reason to head to NCTC’s When Pigs Fly, “It’s time like these that laughter matters most of all.” 

 Rating: 4.5 E

Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly continues through June 10, 2018 on the Decker Stage of the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

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