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Saturday, 01 June 2013 16:13

'Bukowsical' brightens the lower depths.

Written by Steve Callahan

The Details

Zachary Allen Farmer (center) as Charles Bukowski, surrounded by the cast singing "12 Steps of Love"
Zachary Allen Farmer (center) as Charles Bukowski, surrounded by the cast singing "12 Steps of Love" newlinetheatre.com / Jill Ritter Lindberg

For twenty-two years Scott Miller and his New Line company have been zapping the St. Louis musical theatre scene with bolts of energy. Off-beat, eccentric, sometimes dark, often hilarious, occasionally outrageous and always fresh, New Line productions are for folks who have accepted the fact that Rogers and Hammerstein are actually dead.

New Line’s current offering is “Bukowsical,” a very free-form rendering of the life of Charles Bukowski.

A prolific writer of poetry, novels and stories Bukowski was a kind of latter-day Beatnik, a sort of proto-Hippie without the affected idealism. Eugene O’Neal lived a few years of a misspent youth among the abandoned dregs of society; well, Bukowski stayed in that milieu and wrote about it all of his misspent life. Booze, whores, barroom fights and a long string of one-night stands were the things of which his muses—and his life—consisted. Bukowski said that his readership was “the defeated, the demented and the damned”. As one critic observed: “Bukowski will either resonate deeply as some of the most honest and tragic prose ever penned, or, he will offend every sense.”

Just so with this New Line production: folks will either see it as one of the most outrageously funny things ever staged, or it will offend every sense. (Or possibly both.) There is an endless merry torrent of obscenities and vulgarities that becomes strangely inoffensive. I felt an odd sort of purging effect.

The cast includes several New Line veterans. Zachary Allen Farmer, as Bukowski, displays a quite wonderfully strong and true voice.  He gives a powerful performance. In a sweaty shirt that seems to have been used to wipe up the barroom floor, he embodies the derelict slob that Bukowski apparently was. Kimi Short just gets better and better. She’s always had a fine voice, but now to her role as Bukowski’s long-time lover and fellow drunk she brings a simply amazing energy and bravura acting. Joel Hackbarth plays the narrator and other roles with real wit and an effortless professional authority.

Nick Kelly, Ryan Foizey, Christopher Strawhun, Marcy Wiegert and Chrissy Young round out the cast—all doing fine work. Miss Young is blessed with strikingly stageworthy features.

Several of the men are large-bodied fellows, but that seems not to impede them one whit in their participation in Robin Michelle Berger’s excellent (and sometimes very busy) choreography. Portly grace indeed!

We see Bukowski suffer beatings from his father and scorn from his schoolmates; we’re there when he meets Sweet Lady Booze; there’s a very comic visit from literary lions: Faulkner, Williams, Burroughs and a properly depressed Sylvia Plath. In what in some shows might be a tragic moment “Bukowsical” makes beautiful mockery of both the hyper-melodrama so common with opera deaths and our coyly Victorian obsession with one forbidden word. It’s the most inspired moment in the show. (And we’re not really sure whether Bukowski’s grief is for the loss of the woman—or over the fact that he’s now denied the opportunity of killing his wife himself, as William Burroughs did.)

The music is catchy, listenable, and sometimes really lovely, as in the ensemble numbers where the leads sing against a contrarily busy chorus.

I was particularly impressed with the costumes, by Amy Kelly. The color palette is wonderfully diverse, yet balanced—many hues, but with identical intensities. It’s bright and lively.

The text of “Bukowsical” is patchy: some of the humor is wonderful, some is a bit lame; some lyrics include references that will quickly date them. There’s a brief interruption by a lawyer that seems rather pointless. The show is, I think, ephemera. But it’s the sort of ephemera that a company like New Line should be doing. And they do it so very, very well!

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