Review: Twin Musicals BAYSIDE! and SHOWGIRLS! Provide Silliness and Raunch
Most pre-show announcements simply remind audience members to turn off their cell phones and unwrap their candy, but before the curtains part at Theatre 80 for Bayside! The Musical!, lighting designer Adam Lash comes out and cheerfully asks the patrons, "Who's drunk!!??"
While inebriation is not a non-negotiable requirement for enjoying the fizzy mindlessness of director/writers Bob and Tobly McSmith's combo plate of campy comedy and sexual innuendo spoofing the 1990s Saturday morning sitcom for kids, Saved By The Bell, it ain't a bad idea.
The creative cousins actually have two musicals sharing the historic East Village stage at the moment, with Bayside! being joined by their follow-up effort, Showgirls! The Musical!. Both have been playing limited stints around town before trodding mutual boards.
A retooling of Disney's unsuccessful Good Morning, Miss Bliss, which starred Haley Mills as an 8th grade school teacher, Saved By The Bell focused on the antics of a clean-cut group of Southern California kids; pushing the notion that being a good student and a devoted community leader makes you cool. So wholesome was the show's intent that its most infamous attempt at edginess involved a student so determined to get high grades so she can get a scholarship to a good college that she becomes addicted to the caffeine pills she takes to help her pull all-night study sessions.
But, as played by a talented cast of twentysomething comic actors with plenty of school spirit, the McSmiths focus their gags on the sitcom's unspoken raging teen hormones, homosexual subtext and the creepy notion that there were adult viewers perving out on the show. There isn't much of a plot, save for a of series of money-making schemes to help prevent the closing of their favorite burger joint hangout, The Max (making an exercise music video and holding a beauty pageant are two options), so the show becomes a two-act highlight reel, receiving cheers from fans with every reference to a favorite episode or guest character.
The garage band songs rev up the evening and the intentionally inane and self-referential lyrics ("Let's go to The Max. / Everybody's at The Max. / 'Cause there's nowhere else to go in this cheap-ass show / So we all go to The Max.") add to the silly fun.
Sam Harvey nicely spoofs series star Mark-Paul Gosselaar's chipper earnestness as popular kid Zack, with Maribeth Theroux giggling and modeling skimpy outfits as his girlfriend, Kelly. Well-chiseled John Duff wears a wrestling singlet for the entire first act as school jock, Slater, but costume designer Marcus Desion gets a big hand in the second half by having him enter in signature high-waisted acid-washed jeans.
Justin Cimino literally speaks out of the side of his mouth for his herky-jerky Screech and Shamira Clark's Lisa gets a chance to drop the buppie persona and express her outrage at being the show's only non-white regular.
Seth Blum plays it straight as school principal Mr. Belding, but hilariously partakes in some advanced scenery-chewing as tough girl, Tori; a character added in the final season.
I would call Blum's performance show-stealing if it wasn't for the uproarious comic antics of April Kidwell, who spoofs Elizabeth Berkley's Jessie with hyperkinetic hamminess; jamming dozens of caffeine pills down her throat, dancing with Amazonian ferocity, belting out a "Rose's Turn" parody with tense gusto and (as part of her beauty pageant talent contribution) performing an extended avant-garde performance art dance piece where she continually seems to be daring the audience to laugh more.
Her talents are granted center stage in Showgirls! The Musical!, the McSmiths' savage deconstruction of the legendarily bad 1995 film where Berkley starred as drifter Nomi Malone, who claws her way from strip club lap grinder to star of an erotic Las Vegas dance revue.
Showgirls! turns out to be (Dare I say it?) the more sophisticated of the two musicals. The authors have a clearer plot to work with and their satirical jabs sting harder. The stage production embraces the trashiness of the film by lovingly taking it further with songs that actually show some character depth (Nomi's personal anthem of pride is titled "Whorrior!") and choreography by Courtney Self that revels in its own tastelessness.
In impersonating Ms. Berkley's performance, Kidwell roars with overacted dramatics, obliterating any French fry or hamburger that may stand in her way. Not only does she seem capable of moving every muscle of her face independently for superior mugging, but she also possesses the only pair of breasts I've ever seen with comic timing; working both separately and as a team to enhance punch lines with appropriate jiggles. (Cast members, both male and female, spend a good deal of the show shirtless and in g-strings.) She's also a skilled pole-dancer, making a comic highlight out of her character's overenthusiastic raunchiness.
In the Gina Gershon role of Cristal Conners, the topless revue star who Nomi intends to usurp, Rori Nogee struts with panther-like aggression, punches lines with a languid drawl ("Excuse me. I'm just going to powder my nose... with cocaine.") and sings with a fierce rocker belt. Spoofing Cristal's attraction to Nomi, she shamelessly grinds herself against a chair while watching her lap dance and, in a scene set in "Café du Actual Dialogue From The Film," the two of them tease the audience by coming thisclose to kissing.
Philip McLeod, as the stage manager who screams orders at the showgirls ("Thrust it! Thrust it!") but secretly longs to be one of them and Amanda Nicholas, as a dancer who also milks a "will they kiss?" moment with Kidwell, also contribute a good deal of laughs.
But in the annals of musical theatre history, Showgirls! The Musical! may best be remembered for its second act opening; a simply staged number that has Kidwell and John Duff (as the character played by Kyle MacLachlan, who in the musical is named Kyle MacLachlan) thrash about on each other, nearly naked and behind a stretched out piece of fabric held up by the topless Nicholas and Natalie Wagner, as they sing "F*cking Underwater," a song so artlessly smutty that, in context, it achieves high comedy.
At least, it probably seems that way if you're drunk.