20 September 2015

Unauthorized! One Year On

Welcome to the theater!
You ghoul, you’ll love it so.

Having recently celebrated its first anniversary, the Unauthorized! troupe will unveil a new production — its fifth — on Monday night. A Bad Dream on Elm Avenue is, like its predecessors, a musical parody of a popular movie, and like The Hungry Hungry Games, it’s a musical parody of a popular movie I’ve never seen before.

This is exciting: I’m making discoveries the way I discovered Mildred Pierce on The Carol Burnett Show and The Godfather in the pages of MAD Magazine. (As a consequence, I can never watch either of those movies without laughing my head off. This is socially awkward, but I regret nothing.) While I’m sure that prior exposure to The Hunger Whatsits might have made The Hungry Hungry Games even funnier, I’m equally sure that Natalie Sullivan is a lot funnier onstage than Jennifer Whosits is in the movie. She reduced me to helpless fits of giggling within seconds.

Stay Hungry: Natalie Sullivan & Jay Malsky.

Like its predecessors, Bad Dream has been assembled, start to finish, script to score to casting to rehearsal to tech, in little more than a month. To pursue this approach is — let’s face it — a stunt, a gimmick, an extra thing to talk about when you’re trying to get people interested in the show. But there’s no denying that the result is remarkably good musical theater, again and again. And as subsequent performances have demonstrated, the shows hold up beautifully on repeat viewings, long after the initial excitement of the premiere has worn off.

Rehearsing Bad Dream: Kathleen Armenti, Kevin MacLean, Julie Feltman, Nikita Burdein.

The first anniversary is a good time to take stock, and to announce that my initial good impressions have been confirmed and reinforced in repeated viewings of all four shows so far. That ’80s Time-Travel Movie, frequently revived, is as smartly constructed as (and probably runs more smoothly than) any DeLorean. Steel Petunias veers farther away from its source material, yet in a thoroughly logical direction. We’re in the Bible Belt South, so why wouldn’t Satan enter into the conversation? That he enters as a 15-foot-tall puppet seems entirely sensible, too — and more fun. Ghostblasters is, by the creators’ own admission, still a work in progress, yet they have the luxury of testing the show before live audiences, and it’s afforded many pleasures along the way, making me eager to see what we wind up with. Hungry Hungry Games had me howling, even when I had no way to know what would happen next.

Still Hungry: Malsky with Adrian Sexton.
Adrian doesn’t ordinarily dress like this: it has something to do with the movie. Jay more often dresses like Elaine Stritch (and wonderfully well, I hasten to add).

Writer–director Christopher Barnes and composer Ryan Mercy draw from a wonderfully talented ensemble of actors, almost all of whom have a background in improv — which proves handy when someone forgets a line or a bit of stage business goes awry. (Miraculously, producer–production manager Christine Liz Pynn manages to improvise right along with the cast from her perch in the control booth.) Those of us who have seen the shows several times cherish memories of Clairee’s stroke, of a high-heeled shoe launched like a missile into the audience during a dance number, of the recalcitrant curtains in Marty McFly’s bedroom. Looking at the hyper-mechanized, over-drilled, personality-free performances in so many Broadway musicals nowadays, I’m even more grateful to Unauthorized! for providing me with frequent doses of that great rarity in New York, live theater.

Mercy has a gift for composing songs that stick with me long after the show has ended — another striking contrast with most Broadway musicals I see. Steel Petunias is a veritable hit factory, with numbers like “Six Southern Women,” “Drink Your Juice, Shelby,” “Grandpa,” “Mama’s Sayin’s,” “This Kind of Thing” (a ready-made C&W classic), “Hit Ouiser,” and “Come and Sit By Me” making especially lasting impressions. Somehow there’s room, too, in Petunias for the pure emotion of “Young and Love” and the raw power of “Tell My Heart.” I can sing ’em all right now, though you don’t want me to, least of all when this show has fielded so many good singers. Now I’ve got a whole crop of new divas to admire, too: there are some tremendous voices in all of these casts.

A Hell of a show: Emily Essig, Adrian Sexton, Dana Shulman, Taylor Ortega, Emily Mathwich, Julie Feltman, with a tall friend.

Barnes’ scripts incorporate lines and plot points from the source movies so artfully that I seldom notice what he’s done until after I’ve left the theater. His stagecraft and ingenuity extend beyond that Satan (dramatico-satirically apt and visually fun) to solutions to theatrical challenges most of us wouldn’t even identify, much less tackle.

In Ghostblasters, for example, Barnes not only brings a three-dimensional Slimer to the stage, he also reveals the character motivations of the lovable green ghost. In the source movie, of course, Slimer was a creation of trick photography, and nobody stopped to ponder why he did what he did. Beginning with Ghostblasters, Julia Darden has also helped to create puppets for the Unauthorized! shows, so that puppetry and magic tricks (one of Barnes’ specialties) have become staples of all of these productions.

What’s my motivation?

That’s one reason I’m looking forward to Bad Dream. The source movie has entered the cultural consciousness to such a degree that, yes, even I am aware of certain ingredients in the story — and I’m excited to see how Unauthorized! brings them to the stage. The only certainty is that I’ll be surprised by the inventiveness. And when I finally do see the movie, I’ll probably laugh my head off.

One other certainty has been building steadily for the past year: I’m witnessing the start of something big and wonderful, the coming together of so many wonderfully creative young talents. Without question, these people are going places. I can say I saw ’em when — and so can you, if you join me in the audience.

For tickets to Monday’s show, click here. And for tickets to Tuesday’s show, click here.

Where it all began: Pat Swearingen (Doc Brown) & Matt Rogers (Marty) with Rory Scholl, Jane Kehoe, Aubrey Kyburz, Adrian Sexton.

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