Monday, September 3, 2007
Smile, Darn Ya!
I was invited to see the new off-Broadway show, Walmartopia on Friday night. Unsure of the theatre's location, I left myself plenty of travel time. But after a miscalculated train transfer, I wound up in Brooklyn with a horrifying mob of lesbians covered in tattoos and piercings everywhere the eye could see, and (I can only imagine) beyond. I finally made my way back to the East Village, drenched in sweat (and newly pierced), 15 minutes after curtain, making this my tardiest and most obnoxious theatre arrival to date. After seeing the better part the show, however, I might say that I actually arrived about 106 minutes too soon.
Walmartopia was plucked from the 2006 Fringe Festival, where it won critical acclaim. (If you're familiar with the Festival, you'll know that receiving critical acclaim for a Fringe show is kind of like receiving oral sex at a drunken orgy. If people don't throw up from the mere sight of you, you're pretty much worthy of praise, and will most likely be compensated for your time and effort.) This week marks the beginning of the end of the show's new run off-Broadway, at the Minetta Lane Theatre. (Not located in Brooklyn.) It's the triumphant tale of a Wal-Mart employee who stands up to the retail giant, which is known for its anti-union practices, disregard for the environment, sexual discrimination, lousy employee wages, and child labor. (Big deal. I'm not allowed to wear flip-flops at my job.) The show also deals with an ongoing theme of the effect of consumerism and commercialism on America.
Cheryl Freeman, who was the original Acid Queen in Tommy, plays Vicki Latrell, single mom and the Norma Rae of Wal-Mart. My guess is Cheryl did a little too much "character research" back in her Tommy days, as she was forgetting people's names all night, and dropping lines faster than Wal-Mart drops prices. Neither professionalism nor quick wit rushed in to save her. She persistently referred to other characters as "Bob-Sam-Joe-What's-yer-name". Although she has a lovely and powerful voice, Cheryl did little to make the fluffy material seem any meatier than it is. To her credit (perhaps) she has about as much stage presence and comedic timing as the majority of retail checkout girls I've done business with.
Nikki James (All Shook Up, The Wiz) plays Vicki's daughter, Bob-Sam-Joe-uh-Maia Latrell. I really enjoy Nikki. Her beautiful voice is complimented by a very sincere and easy quality, which is nice to watch on stage. Stephen DeRosa (Into the Woods, Hairspray) plays a grab bag of characters throughout the night, including Dr. Normal, a mad scientist with homosexual tendencies in cahoots with the store's CEO. He is adorably funny and manages to be kooky while still keeping it smart. These are just two examples of some of the many notable talents in this show, which I feel is less than deserving.
For the Act 1 finale, Vicki and Maia are captured in a Wal-Mart boardroom meeting, and thrown, against their will, into a time machine to be zapped into the future. (Nothing like magical, smoke-filled time travel at the end of an act to make me feel like I'm right back home in children's theatre.) During intermission, I prayed that the machine would transport them to about 11:35 that night, when I was at home and in bed, but no such luck. Act 2 is set 30 years from the present, in a time when Wal-Mart has taken over the world and all who inhabit it, except the "terrorists" of Vermont, who in reality, tried to gain immunity from Wal-Mart by declaring the state a "historic preservation zone" in 2004.
Mother and daughter are behind bars, awaiting the medical staff of "Med-Mart" (oy), who will give them shots that will turn them into Wal-Mart zombies with the lot. But just as the transformation is about to happen, the Wal-Mart robots realize that Vicki and Maia are talented singers, and decide to spare them for the performing arts division of Walmartopia, known as Wal-Arts. Yes! The ladies are saved by their smooth R&B vocal stylings, and shipped off to Wal-Arts to put on a show, described as a scheme to coax the reluctant residents of Vermont into joining forces with the enemy through song and dance. I describe it as a cheap ploy to utilize the always-popular "show within a show" mechanism, and do a fierce production number which will hopefully wake the audience from their deep slumber. Vicky and Maia join forces with their new friends from Vermont, they hijack the big performance, and do a Care Bear stare. In case you're planning on seeing the show, I won't tell you how it turns out. (They succeed and Wal-Mart goes under.)
I totally get the idea here, and even agree with the moral of the story, but its execution is rather juvenile. I know their message is meant to be a satirical look at capitalism on a larger scale, but it came across more "Wal-Mart is bad, family and singing are good, and look both ways before you cross the street. Pass it on!" This is perhaps a result of the weak book by Catherine Capellaro, and Andrew Rohn's score, which some might call eclectic. It incorporates a dizzying mixture of pop, rock, R&B, rumba, anthems, marches, and whatever other demo buttons Andrew had on his Casio. His rhymes (when you're lucky enough to get any) are insultingly predictable. A lot of the songs are unnecessary, including 18 of the 27 power ballad duets sung by Vicki and Maia, most of which are inappropriately evocative of Ragtime's Wheels of a Dream.
The show rarely takes itself too seriously, which is a good thing, (although when it does, it really does.) But it eventually gets so silly that the message gets lost, and as the night wore on, I began to feel more and more like I was watching an improv class in action. All in all, some fantastic talent, not a bad production, important and relevant message, boring material. I shoulda hung out with the dykes in Brooklyn. I'm sure they had a much better time, perhaps at HOME DEPOT: The Musical.
Love U, Ladies!
Additional Wal-Martography by Abel Macias