Bonnie Lee Sanders has for some time now been established as a versatile, imaginative songwriter for such diverse singers as Hank Williams, Jr. and Eartha Kitt. She's also been a fixture as a performer on the Manhattan cabaret circuit. This new collaboration with Mark Barkan, though, took her into a new genre: "Mystery Musical Puzzle." The results, though mixed, succeeded on their own terms.
The action takes place primarily in the hair salon of Henri LaLune. Three female patrons quickly become widows as their respective no-good husbands are done away with in short order. All three become suspects, along with the salon's gamine manicurist and the proprietor himself. The strands that connect all these people are slowly untangled by an avuncular police detective and his undercover assistant.
The show's first act came off as rather awkward in both script and style, with the plot not infrequently brought to a halt so that exposition could be run off like a news update. And the performances took a good long while to gel into a consistent mode. Once things started to come together, though, the likability quotient shot way up. The closest thing to approximate the show's style are the drag satires of Charles Busch. But Sanders and Barkan don't bother with the subversive, arch, often very dark subtexts with which Busch undergirds his plays. They stick with flamboyant silliness for its own joyful sake, and that silliness becomes the show's prime appealing feature. The breezy direction by Brown and Galarno added immeasurably to this dippy giddiness.
Sanders's and Barkan's songs all have catchy melodies and fit nicely into the evening's feel of buoyancy; and all were well-performed on the piano by the show's musical director, Woody Regan.
The sets, lighting, and costumes by Matthew Katz all shared in the same feel, as their cheesiness became charming after a time. This was especially true of the sets, which comprised flats painted with almost cartoon panel renderings of each locale. The costumes were both flashy and trashy, particularly Henri's chi-chi couture.
And the whole enterprise benefited from a talented cast. As Henri, Sidney Myer's computer timing and uncanny feel for just how far over the top to go made him the hilarious standout of the evening. Paula Newman's handsome features and diamond-edged presence as one of the widow/suspects were also memorable. Mimi Scott was endearingly airheaded, but it's difficult to tell whether her complete lack of pitch was an intentional comic choice. Alison Grambs made a nice New Wave ingenue. And Michael Colby Jones came off as an appealing hunk of a leading man.
Another reason for the extent to which the show succeeded was the house. Theatre East, long the home of Forbidden Broadway, lends itself to the feel of a dorm basement where those crazy kids are winging it and having a good, stupid time they'd like to share with us all. A larger, more conventional house would probably have worked against this ambiance.
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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