Even if you've never seen Louise Brooks in the 1929 silent Pandora's Box, you'll probably recognize the iconic image of her character Lulu, the seemingly unimpressive young thing with black bobbed hair and coal-dark eyes whose cocktail of innocence and sexuality was poisonous to anyone who dared to claim her. She was the seedy side of flapper life and women of the early thirties dreamed of being the femme fatal that Lulu was. Years later it was the look and attitude that propelled Liza Minnelli into super-stardom in the film version of Cabaret. If a woman doesn't quite have what it takes to get the smart and handsome men to fawn all over her, with a little work she can at least be worshiped by the well-off and dumb ones.
Adam Gwon (book, music and lyrics) and Courtney Phelps (book and direction) have based their musical Lulu on a trio of late 19th/early 20th Century plays by German Expressionist Frank Widekind, tweaking the story a bit by placing it in the 1920's, eliminating the appearance of Jack the Ripper and emphasizing the world's romance with moving pictures and the promise of talkies.
After an opening number boasting of the title character's prowess at both inspiring desire and destroying the lives of those who lust for her (a song which, although effective in its own right, has far too much resemblance to the opening number of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party), we meet Lulu as a young street urchin who, with her friend Rodrigo, earns a meager living by selling stolen roses to couples outside a movie theatre. Although Lulu dreams of the romance and glamor she sees on the screen, she settles for a wealthy, married doctor who is seduced by her youth and shares her favors with a colleague. A parade of suitors follow, spinning the tale into complications involving jealousies, bloodshed and humiliations, all narrated by Rodrigo, who appears to be the only one immune to Lulu's charms.
Gwon and Phelps seem to be heavily influenced by the musicals of Marc Blitzstein whose moralistic dramas were a close cousin (via the musicals of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht) to the type of expressionistic theatre Widekind pioneered. Scenes are often done as a burlesque with the less-sympathetic characters played as emotional buffoons. Acts of violence are played out like a silent picture, separating us emotionally. Gwon's music relies less on melody than on hard-driving rhythms and interesting jazz and blues stylings. His lyrics contain the kind of working-class street poetry you'd get from the period. One suitor sings "My Lulu's like a dime-store dolly / Cheap and second hand, but she'll give you jolly." Not exactly a perfect rhyme, but appropriate for the style.
Brooke Sunny Moriber seems the perfect choice to play Lulu. A small, almost slight woman with a large belting voice, Moriber effectively plays Lulu as a woman grasping beyond what comes naturally to her. She's not a femme fatal because sexuality simply oozes from her. She forces the sexuality out as a means of survival. Moriber always makes sure we always see the effort Lulu puts into her seduction. Matching her in both acting and singing is Daniel C. Levine as Rodrigo. Looking straight out of a Clifford Odets play with his scrubbed American working-stiff presence, Levine is nicely detached from the proceedings, being the only one who sees Lulu for what she is, until he too becomes emotionally involved.
If Lulu has a major flaw it's that the audience itself receives little reason to be emotionally involved. A show where nearly every character acts out of self-serving reasons may seem a bit much for two and a half hours, no matter how interesting the presentation. But this short premiere engagement shows a work of ambition, creativity and promise.