Supermarket tabloids have accomplished a clever, two-tiered assault on the privacy of Americans, simultaneously invading the personal lives of celebrities while disrupting the tranquillity of a working person's trip to the grocery store, drugstore, or 7-Eleven. Who among us, for example, would not bring the shopping cart to a screeching halt if confronted by a headline proclaiming Michael Jackson's purported sex-change operation? Especially if it were accompanied by the image of Jacko's head propped atop Liz Taylor's body.
Of course as a theater critic, I am much too busy with Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, and Eugene O'Neill to stoop to reading one of those rags. Okay, okay, so I flipped through one recently to find out about actress Courtney Cox's miracle candy diet. Hey, if she manages to stay so skinny on a food regimen consisting entirely of Snickers bars, I want the inside scoop. But I would never, ever actually buy one of those rags. Thank the Lord I'll never have to, because Six Women With Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want to Know, the entertaining production now at Actors' Playhouse in Kendall, has told me everything I'd already suspected about the tabloid mentality: It's everywhere, and no one is immune.
The musical revue takes a two-act song-and-dance trip into tab territory, including side tours of soap operas, Barbie dolls, game shows, and senior proms. Developed in 1987 in Kansas City, Missouri, with music and lyrics by Mark Houston and a loosely written book fashioned by the original actors, the production moved on to San Diego, where it played for five years, becoming the longest running show in that city's history. On stage in Kendall, eight-year-old headlines about Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart have been replaced by more newsworthy references to that guy's interminable trial in Southern California. The bizarre juxtapositions and sound-bite rhythms essential to both tabloid journalism and popular culture remain the same, however, no matter whose scandals and what trends dominate the current consciousness. On the one hand, with minor adaptions the revue successfully translates to 1995 without seeming dated; on the other hand, the insipid nature of contemporary life makes for thin material, and constantly sifting through such detritus grows tedious.
And yet the six actors playing the women with brain death rescue the evening from banality. Blessed with wonderful voices that range from sweet to growly, individual acting and dancing styles, and unflagging energy, they move fluidly between ensemble chorus-line numbers and sketches that showcase each of them solo. Whether enjoying the spotlight or providing backup, each member of the sextet has an infectiously great time hurling ridiculous material at each other and at the audience.
Margot Moreland, straight from her hilarious performance in Ruthless!, once again combines singing, dancing, and acting with an ease that makes her talents appear deceptively effortless. Here she's memorable as the teenager too fat to be prom queen who transforms into a matron enjoying the revenge of having married rich. Itanza Wooden distinguishes herself as a gospel singer preaching through song that "God Is an Alien." By the time Wooden delivers the Almighty's message to His flock -- "Sell Amway, sell Herbalife, sell Nuskin" -- the audience is converted and ready to do her bidding. Irene Adjan, Gia Bradley-Cheda, Maribeth Graham, and Janece Martell also bring panache and verve to their various roles. And the group shares one particularly splendid moment when, at a prom reunion, with each woman wearing the same dress she wore twenty years earlier, the six friends shift from sentimental and insecure to tough and proud, insisting through song that they have survived and thrived.
Before the show begins, director David Arisco sets up the evening by appearing in front of the audience and encouraging them not to be offended. Once the skits begin he keeps the tone light, comfortable, and familiar. In his hands the material pokes fun more often than it disses anyone, although two scenes retain their perfectly tasteless nature, gleefully reminiscent of Monty Python. In the first, Graham plays the former prom queen who jumped into the garbage disposal in an attempt to retrieve her tiara, mangling her body in the process and leaving behind only her head, which her dear friend (Moreland) keeps tucked under the top half of a silver cake plate. In the second, all six manipulate the plastic limbs of a Barbie doll and a Ken doll into graphic positions of orgiastic pleasure.
Mary Lynn Izzo's costumes celebrate the tacky, particularly her inspired alien outfits, wherein plastic shower curtains serve as cloaks and party favors affixed to blow-up pool toys pass for helmets. Michael Essad's larger-than-life backdrops of National Expirer covers swivel into an appropriately cheesy living room for a soap opera sketch and into a faux forest during a Disney sendup. Behind the scenery, musical director Tom Dillickrath leads a live band that mixes cheerful show tunes with skewered pop songs.
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More a playful romp than a scathing cultural indictdiment, Six Women With Brain Death nonetheless offers an evening of rousing song and dance that effectively acknowledges the human brain's bottomless appetite for trash.
With Six Women concluding its current season, Actors' Playhouse stands poised to shift its theater operations from Kendall to Coral Gables. The playhouse's fourth annual Reach for the Stars Auction raised more than $75,000 to refurbish the vintage Miracle Theatre on the Miracle Mile. After the Miracle's last hurrah as a movie palace (on April 18 it showed The Last Picture Show), renovations began. Plans call for Man of La Mancha to open the 1995-96 season on November 17. Next year's lineup also includes Herb Gardner's Thousand Clowns, theatrical legend George Abbott's Pajama Game, the Florida premiere of the thriller Dangerous Obsession, and the contemporary musical Mating Habits of the Urban Mammal.
No surprises there, I'm afraid. Yes, the Don Quixote-based Man of La Mancha is an appropriate choice to commemorate the playhouse's new digs in the Gables, a community rich in Spanish heritage and architecture. And the show happens to be my favorite musical. But haven't we all seen it at least once, if not several times? Ditto The Pajama Game (I can recite that one in my sleep, having been prompter for my high school's production). While I find it hard to argue with saluting the late George Abbott, I can't help wondering if this tribute production is merely a pretext for mounting yet another decades-old musical. Dangerous Obsession and Mating Habits replicate the playhouse's sure bets from previous years, only in different packaging. The only nongenre offering is Herb Gardner's 30-year-old comedy. With artistic director David Arisco and his talented stepson, Sean Russell, as its leads, this Thousand Clowns may be destined to entertain, but it's hardly a risky venture.
Dare I call this formula programming? Arisco's recent accomplished handling of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof whet my appetite for meatier fare. With so much challenging theater out there and Arisco's talent for interpreting it, I wish Actors' Playhouse wouldn't assume their subscription base must be fed a diet of musicals when deciding what to bring to the stage.