A Southern-'gator-gothic-musical - why didn't Sondheim think of that? It's just as well he hasn't, because whatever he'd come up with wouldn't be as delightful as Wings Theatre Company's Swamp Fever. After all, "It's a 'gator eat 'gator world," says Crystal Clear (Julia Barnett) as she introduces the action. And, as we find out later, she should know.
The book by Ginny Cerrella is a pastiche of the Charles Busch sort - a melange of such sources as Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte; Little Shop of Horrors; anything by Tennessee Williams; and even a little Psycho around the edges. To be any fun at all, this kind of thing has to be played more than straight; it has to be believed. And this was the production's strength - it was played broadly yet seriously, thanks to the excellent cast and well-thought-out direction by Nolan Haims. The absurdities were set up to shine on their own, with no need for an elbow to the ribs.
A plot summary would give away some of the best jokes and be useless besides, so here goes. The Pit Stop Alligator Farm is a tourist stop in the swamps of Louisiana, run by sister and brother Dixie and Junior Boissier (Lisa Nicholas and Paul Hertel) on what's left of their bankrupt family estate, its major attraction being Junior's alligator-wrestling skills. (Perhaps that's what Belle Reve would have been reduced to if Blanche had a hunky brother she had the hots for, rather than a sister in New Orleans, and if Williams had a sense of humor.) But don't forget the trio of singing alligators (Miguel Valentin, Sean Harris, David Meglino). And if you confuse alligators with crocodiles, there's a short lesson on the difference. But I digress.
There are scene-setting songs ("Welcome to the Pit Stop"), character-development songs (the alligators' "We Want More Meat"), songs of longing ("Keep Coming Back") and lust ("Due for a Trim"), irony-tinged ditties ("Better Off Dead") and even production numbers ("Big Apple Blues"). The last comes from Caroline Clear (Jodi Lynne Sylvester), who has come to the swamp from her home in New York in search of her sister, who has disappeared. There's a tinge of disappointment about the show's songs (music and lyrics by Mickey McMahan & Ginny Cerrella) - unfortunately, too many of them seemed like only fragments, and this caused some lumpy scene transitions. But when one of the songs is complete, and sung with conviction, everything is right in the musical-comedy world. A heartfelt, corny ballad like "Everything But Love," sung by the local Sheriff (Chuck Wagner), is exactly right, and perfect for the reprise it gets.
Perfect is also the word for the production, from the moss-laden set (Sandra Goldmark) to the tacky yet perfectly in character costumes (Alejo Vietti), and lighting (Daniel Ordower) for every mood and gruesome event. Musical direction (David Jenkins) and the four-piece "orchestra" could not be better, and the choreography (Alissa Stein), especially for "Something's Wrong at the Pit Stop," was delightful. A musical for the ages? Hardly, sugah. But when the 'gators show up in a number to sing back-up, well, there ain't nuthin' like it.
The terrific cast also included John Tartaglia and Yamille
Penagos, and Heather Edwards, Douglas C. Clark,
Stephen Thompson, and Simone Smith played in the
Book : 2
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Copyright 1999 David Mackler