Is that really Linda Lovelace, the misunderstood and misrepresented 1970s porn star, featured as the central character in one of L.A.’s heralded new musicals, Lovelace: A Rock Opera? Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey’s aim for Lovelace, which closes this weekend after a five-month run at the Hayworth, is to set the story straight, to give Linda the respect she deserves. But is it really about Linda (played by the hypnotically mercurial Katrina Lenk), or Little Red Riding Hood, an innocent lost in the woods of the porn industry as the wolves close in? Watch the baddest wolf, Linda’s husband and porn producer Chuck Traynor (Jimmy Swan), rescue Linda from an abusive mother who forced her stunned woman-child to give up her out-of-wedlock first baby. Watch the guise of Traynor’s kindness fall away, like the wolf’s bonnet, as he begins to snarl at and dominate his fiancée. Watch him invite his friends and business partners to gang-rape her on their honeymoon. When she has the gall to suggest that deep-throating strangers is not the kind of escape from her family she’d signed up for, he responds by punching, hypnotizing and drugging her. Lovelace: A Rock Opera is no grand guignol parody of human cruelty, it’s the genuine article, a saga of servitude and slavery set to pop music that slides into opera. Despite its redemptive finale, this is a somber, almost theological excursion into many hearts of darkness.
A truism heard around the country suggests that in times of hardship, people crave escapist entertainments. Yet over the past few years, L.A. has generated a wave of dark-themed musicals that have attracted local audiences for months — a development that suggests an openness to more serious, adult fare.
The action in Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara, Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith’s hit musical homage to the 1950s lounge-act duo of Louis Prima and his wife, Keely Smith, starts with Prima on a hospital bed in a coma, dying. He awakens to relive the tale of his jealousy of the young woman he discovered and married, his control freakishness, the reasons Smith eventually left him, and his return, alone and abandoned, to his death bed. Throughout the play, Broder and Smith sing an array of pop ballads, scat, bebop and doo-wop ditties that scan the decades of Prima and Smith’s partnership, all accompanied by an onstage band. “Nothing lasts forever” was the slogan printed on the original program.
Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara opened at the Sacred Fools Theater last year, where it was met with a cascade of rave reviews and thrived for months with sold-out houses. Transferring “up” to the Geffen Playhouse last week with a new director, a new book, added characters and a journey far more psychologically complicated, the play, with its essences of God, music jealousy and death, has been muddied by the attempt to transform it into a bio-epic, the likes of comparatively formulaic musicals such as “Stormy Weather” (about Lena Horne) and “Ella” (about Ella Fitzgerald). Even the great line, “Nothing lasts forever” — clearly at the heart of the idea — no longer appears on the program cover. In a telling shift to the bigger stage, the musical’s darkness has been whitewashed by the replacement of at least three reflective ballads with upbeat ditties.
Then there’s Frank Zappa’s sex-saturated satire, Joe’s Garage, a megahit for the Open Fist Theatre last year. Joe (Jason Paige) is a garage-band guitarist, mesmerized by his capacity for creation in a suburb characterized by Orwellian conformity. Joe finds himself betrayed by his girlfriend (Becky Wahlstrom) and he is eventually arrested for accidentally short-circuiting a sexual-appliance robot during a golden-shower episode. He, like Lovelace, is gang-raped, but in jail and by former record executives as a chorus sings, “Keep it greasy so it goes down easy.” When Joe finally re-emerges into the “free” world, he discovers that music has been banned by the government. No worries: He lands a good job in a muffin factory.
It took a pop songwriter named Richard Winzeler to find the right operatic tone for Great Expectations. Margaret Hoornerman, Brian VanDerWilt, Steve Lane and Steve Lozier’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story about the plight of an orphan, and about child abuse and human trafficking in Victorian London, played last year at the Hudson Backstage and Odyssey theaters. Finally, there was West Coast Ensemble’s revival of Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim collection of musical/psychological profiles of the men and women who attempted to murder various U.S. presidents.
These are just some of the works nominated for Best Musical in the 30th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards (Monday night at El Rey). These musicals were all financed and presented, and drew their audiences, during the past 18 months, as we were slowly becoming aware that the economy was starting to slide. In that time there have been two noticeable changes on L.A. stages. New plays have certainly not gone away, but the quantity of new musicals being presented here is unprecedented.