BWW Review: WOMEN BEHIND BARS BENDS OVER TO BEGUILE, BEWITCH AND BOISTEROUSLY BEDAZZLE at The Montalban Theatre
HOLLYWOOD, CA JANUARY, 2020
There was quite the wild opening night going on at the fabulous Montalban Theatre, in Hollywood, this past month. And I have a feeling, every night since, until it closed it's two-weekend run, due mostly to cast members' former commitments, it felt much the same. The audience was treated to an embellished redux of the 1975 cult smash hit of the same name.
The "Women Behind Bars," that I first saw, many times, at The Roxy on the Sunset Strip in the 1980s starred a lot of one-and-onlys: Lu Leonard, Sally Kellerman, Linda Blair and Adrienne Barbeau. A fabulous cult-inspiring run. The author, whom not many people are aware of, is Tom Eyen, the versatile author of "Dreamgirls," who won a Tony for "Best Book for a Musical" and a Grammy for the cast album. Ron Link, the Director was perfectly matched to capture and run with this crazy, out there, satirical and playful prison romp.
Cut to present day ~ Opening Night, January 24, 2020
Taking place in 1962 ~ Bursting out towards us, with follow spots, loud bull horns and complete mayhem on stage, a jailbreak is occurring. As the inmates pour out into the common area, then into the audience, an expose of the incarcerated begins.
Traci Lords, as the lead character Gloria, is a bad ass, tell-it-like-it-is and a heart like Charity Hope in "Sweet Charity" type of gal, and when the prison matron isn't bulldozing her way through their community cell, she is the one in charge.
From her breakout role in John Waters' "Crybaby" opposite Johnny Depp, to "Blade," numerous recurring roles on "Married With Children," "Will & Grace," "Roseanne" and others, including the current Netflix "Eastsiders," as well as being a platinum recording artist, Traci knows her way around a juicy role, and has proved that in her showbiz track record. Traci, as Gloria, milks every moment as she reveals, throughout the play, the many nuances, contradictory sometimes, of her complex personality. She's gritty, sarcastic, matter-of-fact, loves her prison gal-pals and knows her way around a women's prison.
Playing The Matron, (originally played by the legendary Divine) Eureka O'Hara, is beyond fabulous and outrageous. Every moment on stage she is mesmerizingly in character, and is so much the heart of this saga. She goes through every possible emotion imaginable, flamboyantly and with hutzpah and conviction. Quite the showwo-man, as well.
Each of the women characters give us a rounded portrait of themselves through the unfolding of the tale. Ginger Minj, (of Ru Paul's Drag Race and a variety of theatre and voiceovers to his credit) sells it marvelously, as a perfectly off-her-rocker inmate, playing Ada. Chi Chi DeVayne, also from Ru Paul's Drag Race, who has played some outrageous characters in the past, is the in-your-face Jo-Jo, who's basically got one thing on her mind and lets you know it. Coco Peru hilariously plays Louise, the warden's sidekick ("To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything") and adds a real "tongue-in-cheek" attitude all the way through. Mink Stole is deliciously decadent, and has a list of movie credits with John Waters and others in this genre a mile long. Suzie Kennedy, and an absolute knockout, Marilyn Monroe look-alike who can really act and deliver, pops out in every scene she's in... Poppy Fields is Blanche, the oh-so-southern belle in a wonderful, laid-back portrayal of Southern charm and hospitality, you might say; Adrienne Couper Smith, excellent as Mary Eleanor, the innocent victim turned advocate for inmate "rehabilitation" plays it to the hilt, both beguilingly innocent and then salciously decadent, and Tatiana Monteiro as the revved-up and on fire Guadalupe, steals the show several times with her exuberant performance. The Man, played more than aptly by Wesley Woods, is the sole diversion in an otherwise fantabulous cast of over-the-top femmes, and quadruples his talent by enthusiastically playing all the male characters for the evening.
The set performs perfectly for the many transitions this play unfolds in. Set Designer Paul Black uses oversized jail rails downstage to give us a constantly changing perspective of the goings-on inside, and set changes are brilliantly achieved. Attention to the set's details in every scene make the characters richer and add even more fun. Lighting design, also by Paul Black, takes us from extreme harshness in the jail areas, with shadowy and clandestine effective effects for the down-and-dirty dealings going on within those prison walls. The costumes are everything they should be... luxurious, outlandish, that sexy/jailbird look, and the wardrobe perfectly completes each of the characters portrayed on stage.
Director and Executive Producer Scott Thompson has deftly and thoroughly accomplished this redux by improving, embellishing and enhancing the version I saw long ago. And Ron Link's shoes are hard to fill. Make those F-Me Pumps. (pardon my language... should say "Only Adults Shall Read.") Anyway, I digress.
The point is that this is a great example of preserving the humor, the pathos, the grit, the temper of the times. It is best expressed through the Arts, especially in this form. There is something about live performance that just is a deeper visual and more instantly aware experience.
It is also a testament to those past times. When things seemed more open, uncomplicated and accepting. Ask a Baby Boomer. "Politically Correct" in the '90s was a new term and only the partial name of Bill Maher's excellent revolutionary TV program. Now so much protocol is forced upon us...
But, oh, what fun to mock and reminisce lovingly, simultaneously, and irreverently!
The plot's dire yet hilarious twists and turns, are constantly evolving and bringing to light the bizarre experiences these wild-and-crazy broads go through and what insanity ensues when you throw them all in the slammer together.
"Just Pow" Productions has a solid gem on it's hands, and hopefully will be showcasing and proudly displaying the craziness and just plain naughty fun again on the boards, in La-La Land and beyond, very soon.
Photos courtesy of Traci Lords, Lionel Garcia