Monday, August 20, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Bukowsical"

Photo/Lili Von Schtupp

It's crude and lewd, but boy does it have a toe-tapping beat! Bukowsical! may be faithful to Bukowski's life in attitude only, but throw caution to the wind and prepare to get soused. Do as the giant bottle of Jim Beam (good old Sweet Lady Booze) sings, as she spreads her legs and shakes her tail: "Take Me." It's hard to be offended, even by the off-kilter opening ("When you're fucking a whore, and you're downing a case/Bukowsical"), because of how exuberant it all is--exactly the same kind of highbrow lowbrow that made Urinetown a success.

The premise is similar to another recent musical, Gutenberg! The Musical!, in that it is presented as a backer's audition. The difference is that the pompous actor/director/producer John Marcus Cardiff (Marc Cardiff) knows what he's doing, and brought an exceptional cast out to introduce his vision. By the second number, it's clear that Cardiff's vision is absurd--he comes out wearing a Phantom mask, and encourages the bullies to beat Bukowski: "Art is Pain" ("You're totally disgusting and we hate you/you'll never get a girl to masturbate you" is followed by a musically precise chorus of "Nyah Nyah").

Nobody really takes the narrative seriously, least of all Bukowski (Brad Blaisdell), who intentionally forces emotions to match those ascribed to him by the narration. But when the singing kicks in, Blaisdell's a star, showing the range of a deep-throated roar in the smoky jazz hit "Love Is (a Dog from Hell)," the sweet gruff of a love song in "Chaser of My Heart," or the stream of contrapuntal curses of his "Elegy" (layered over the elegiac "Remember Me"). He's joined by a great chorus, but his greatest asset is Fleur Phillips, who floats coloratura above Buk's jagged notes in the role of One True Love (and even gets to belt some gospel on the side).

The writing by Spencer Green and Gary Stockdale (who does music, too) shows a tight collaboration of ideas, and only misses the mark on a few songs that seem disconnected, like "Slippery Slope" (with the one-shot villain, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen) or "Through A Glass, Barfly" (in which Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke battle to play the film version of Bukowski). But for the most part, everything follows logically, from the "Writing Lesson" from Faulkner, Williams, Plath, and Burroughs ("Get down, get dark, get dirty") to Buk's time among the down-and-outs on the "Derelict Train" or at the postal post office ("Working Song").

The show perhaps owes its greatest debt to director Joe Peracchio and his choreographer, Leanne Fonteyn, who never miss a chance--even in black-box--to keep the show upbeat. You might call this type of musical a form of upbeatnik poetry: but I'd just call it unmissable, and in honor of the late Charles Bukowski, a heady brew that's good to the last drop.

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