When the press release describes the plot of a musical as "boy-meets-girl, boy-designs-really-big-car-for-girl, girl-leaves-boy-for-environmental-activist, boy-is-sentenced-to-death-for-crimes-against-humanity," you know you're in for a wild ride. This farce is bursting at the seams with the giddy anarchy of the Marx Brothers, the pop culture references of the Simpsons -- and the anti-big-auto fervor of Ralph Nader.
This product of a team dubbed Neo-Shtick Theater comes together under director Eric Oleson, producer Gersh Kuntzman (also responsible for the book, and with the stage role of Judge Green), songwriter and music director Marc Dinkin, and choreographer Katie Workum. This is Neo-Shtick Theater's second appearance at the Fringe Festival, New York City's annual summer indie arts extravaganza.
The first song is "Bigger Is Better," identifying the urge behind not only the trend of increasingly larger SUVs but many other American problems as well: "Have you seen the Pentagon? It's not some little fort! Or the cinnamon buns they're selling at your hometown mall food court? No winter storm is worthy 'til we're under tons of snow. We even love the deficit, let's watch those trillions grow! So when I have my heart attack, I know just what I'll do I'll get a quintuple bypass, not some triple one like you. Super-size my Coke and fries, and I'll standing in the longest line No wonder we all worship at J-Lo's big behind!"
There's a follow-up, "The New Model," identifying the other great imperative of modern capitalism. Both are sung by Dick Johnson (Christian Maurice), responsible for Behemoth's new Destroyer model SUV, successor to the Deforester and the Defiler (his daughter, surfeited with excess, then sings "I Wish I Was in India (Starving)"). Yes, Dick Johnson; there are enough size jokes and dick jokes in this show to stock the Friar's Club for a Milton Berle roast, culminating in the song "Dick, Have Some Balls," which climaxes with this immortal couplet:
"And the taste of victory's delectable / Once you locate each testicle."
The music's an adequate platform (with no apparent ambitions beyond functionality) for the clever lyrics; the four-piece rock band backing the singers started out too loud in passages lying low in the singers' ranges but adjusted after a few songs (some mic problems were never solved, however). The staging is low-budget but all the more charming for it, especially in the driving scenes where the cars make Fred Flintstone's look high-tech. Having stagehands dressed as crash test dummies at first seemed merely clever; then they became important characters in the melodramatic plot, complete with a love song from one to the other ("Can you hear me through the noise / As your air-bag deploys?").
The dialogue is even sharper than the song lyrics; the extremes of environmentalists and political correctness, embodied in the play's hero, Max Blank, are also poked fun at, but with more affection than the vituperation with which SUVs are pilloried. Amid the parody of romantic melodrama, there's no attempt at realism; on the contrary, silliness builds and builds, reaching mind-boggling peaks in a courtroom scene in which poetic justice is done in a more satisfying way than the real world would ever allow. The hammier the acting, the more appropriate; in this regard, Kenny Wade Marshall (as Spiros, a yes-man adman) steals the show on multiple occasions with both his singing (imagine Ethel Merman channeled by a short, middle-aged man) and hyperactive acting.
From moment to moment, the action may seem as ramshackle as the plywood cars the characters maneuver by hand, but the underlying structure is actually quite solid, and if a joke falls flat, don't worry -- there'll be another one five-seconds later; most of them are at least chuckle-worthy, and a bunch of them earn big guffaws. Assuming sympathy for the play's political thrust, most people should find this a most amusing night out more than worth the mere $15 admission. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer. He has just finished recording his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.