Once again, a Tucson theater company has surprised me with its ability to use the cozy (read: small) space of the Cabaret Theater at the Temple of Music and Art in a way that suggests the wide open spaces of the American road.
Arizona Onstage's production of Brad Alexander and Adam Mathias' off-Broadway musical See Rock City and Other Destinations takes place at roadside attractions across America. The opening vignette involves a drifter, Jess (Nick Gallardo), persuading a waitress, Dodi (Miranda Sloan), to go to Rock City, a lookout point in Georgia.
Jess sings the titular song, about the signs that read "See Rock City," and this first number is the catchiest—the one I had stuck in my head the following morning.
The audience, of course, does not "see" Rock City. That's left to our imaginations, as the performers sing against a backdrop of minimal scenery.
Gallardo and Sloan both have lovely vocals, and the sound quality was consistently excellent throughout the show. They also have a sweet chemistry as Jess and Dodi. We never do find out much about either character, though, because the musical soon moves on.
That's the structure of the show: short musical scenes, one after another, of characters Having a Moment at famous spots of Americana. There's Evan (Brian Levario) waiting for aliens to appear in Roswell, N.M. Lauren (Amy DeHaven) and Grampy (Rob Roberts) visit the Alamo. Two young boys (Kevin Vidal and Jon Holmes) tentatively hold hands for the first time on a trip to Coney Island.
As the musical progresses, some of the actors double up on roles. Sloan and DeHaven also play two sisters on an Alaskan cruise, joined by a third sister (Jolene Lucas) who's having trouble dealing with their father's death. Small, subtle costume changes and acting choices help keep each character distinct.
It also helps that there isn't a weak link in the cast. The actors all have strong voices, and a few are truly impressive. DeHaven has a standout number as the lonely Lauren when she belts out "All There Is to Say."
There's much to enjoy in each vignette, and there's little to critique in Megan Tenney's direction and Daniel Tenney's musical direction. The live four-piece band is excellent; the technical aspects of the show are solid; and the performances are strong. I simply found myself getting less enamored of the musical itself as it wound down.
As each vignette repeats the theme of the show ("What are you afraid of?"), the message loses its power. OK, we get it: The characters all need to conquer their fears, to take a leap.
By the last vignette, in which Kate (Lucas) goes to Lover's Leap at Niagara Falls and ponders what she's afraid of (GET IT? SHE NEEDS TO TAKE A LEAP! A LEAP AT LOVER'S LEAP!), the message feels stifling.
It might have been better if the show had simply ended after Jess and Dodi's first three songs. Through the characters' actions, those scenes showed the theme of taking a risk; the rest of the musical simply tells us what the point is, over and over and over.
After See Rock City ends, Arizona Onstage's late-night production of Devil Boys From Beyond begins.
The Buddy Thomas and Kenneth Elliot show was a hit at the New York Fringe Festival, and by putting it on in the wee hours, Arizona Onstage brings a bit of a "fringe-y" feel to Tucson. When he introduced the show on opening night, artistic director Kevin Johnson encouraged the audience to be irreverent and loud.
Everything about the play suggests irreverence. It's a tribute to the campy sci-fi movies of the 1950s and other cinema classics—it's full of characters that evoke His Girl Friday, Peyton Place and Mommie Dearest.
The actors go all out, committing themselves entirely to the deliberately ridiculous world of the play. In keeping with camp's tradition of gender-bending, the two main female roles are done in drag. Eric Taylor plays Mattie Van Buren, a successful female reporter trying to keep her drunken photographer ex-husband, Gregory (Steve McKee), in line. Andrew Baughman is Mattie's bitter rival, the platinum-blond, social-climbing reporter Lucinda Marsh.
Baughman and Taylor shine as the two female competitors. Instead of going for easy drag jokes, they play their roles with the gravitas of silver-screen goddesses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
The reporters end up in Florida, investigating a possible alien-invasion case. The men in a small town there (Levario and Gallardo, doing double-duty here after acting in See Rock City) are being replaced by hunky, scantily clad studs. The women (T. Loving and Ina Shivack) don't really seem to mind.
Sounds like fun, right? At first, I couldn't work out why I yawned frequently, despite having downed an energy drink before the show's 10 p.m. opening. The subject matter is perfect for late night, but at an hour and 45 minutes, the play is too long for such a late start. It takes a while to lay out the story, and the deliberately silly plot doesn't justify the run time.
First-time director Fred Rodriguez might have tried harder to keep the show going at a quicker clip. Campy, late-night theater should, after all, be fast and furious.