By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
“The ones that have shown up ... I didn’t want to get involved with. And the ones you would hope would show up have issues of their own. What I’ve been told is, ‘Joe’s too blue for the stage.’ I don’t know anybody who talks like that in any generation.”
She confirms Towne’s story of her coming to see Moon Unit in Towne’s production of Waiting forStudio 54.
“Pat directed it. It was very small and totally cheesy,” she says, clearly pleased. (Frank Zappa described Joe’s Garage as “a really cheap kind of high school play.”)
“I felt, ‘Oh why not? Why not take a chance?’ ... I think of it as, I’m doing the best I can with the tools I’ve got. You hope for the best, you expect the worst, and if you come out somewhere between, that’s a good thing.”
Unlike Towne, however, Gail plays down the importance of the story, because most of what Frank Zappa did is musical. His playfulness and gregariousness, “it’s all in the music. It doesn’t have anything to do with words. So that’s the legacy.”
The three Zappas in attendance for the rehearsal sit in the same row. Ahmet, in a suit and tie, rests his elbows on his knees. Diva sits knitting, smiling, preparing for a September exhibition of her knitting designs in New York. Towne and Lettelleir are restaging “Catholic Girls” — refining all that fellatio. Gail Zappa watches, beaming.
“I love this energy,” she says.
On September 2, the full band — two keyboardists, two guitarists, a drummer and a couple of horn players — makes its first appearance for a rehearsal with the ensemble. The theater is awash in activity, with actors practicing routines in the lobby as equipment is hauled in around them. The theater’s huge backstage door hangs open. A table saw stands on one side of the stage. Two platforms that have been constructed on the stage now give the actors points of elevation.
“All singers gather ’round. This is going to be a funky night, obviously,” Towne bellows. “A couple of people we have wireless mikes for are Joe and Father Riley — everyone who has a solo, go over to the standing mike so we can hear what you sound like against the band.”
The plan is to just sing through the whole show without choreography, so sound designer Tim Labor can get a clearer idea of how the music needs to be mixed.
“This outdoes anything I’ve ever done,” says Towne, smoking on the sidewalk during a break. “We’re going to make it flashy and put in lots of lights, but the music is key and has been the hardest to get down.”
One part of a song has a 19/16 count per measure, and then it shifts to 21/16, “So you’ve got these weird Frank time signatures — and then, even in the easier songs, there’s a funky dissonant harmony the men have, and I’m thinking, ‘Am I hearing this right?’ — because if you’re a little flat on a dissonant chord, it’s all over.”
Onstage, the drummer clacks his sticks together, setting the beat, and the full band blasts out the title cut, “Joe’s Garage.” Lanky Ben Thomas approaches a standing mike, and apes Zappa’s vocal cadences: “We could jam in Joe’s Garage/His mama was screamin’/His dad was mad/We was playin’ the same old song/In the afternoon ’n’ sometimes we would/Play it all night long/It was all we knew ’n’ easy too/So we wouldn’t get it wrong ...’”
The music envelops the room. The ensemble on stage sneak glances at each other, as though they never imagined this could sound so good. Some break into irrepressible grins and begin swaying to the music.
With two weeks until the first preview, only a fraction of the theatrical elements is in play, but the interactions in the hall are so cordial and cooperative, you can’t help but feel that Franco’s grandiose and possibly reckless approach to producing a new musical might just fly — or, at least, that enough of it will leave the ground to give this show a future.
Joe’s Garage, presented by Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Currently in previews; opens September 26 and plays Fridays through Sundays through November 22. For information, call (323) 882-6912 or visit openfist.org.