My Uncle Jim was the first man I knew with false teeth. The dentures were only one thing that made him freakish to me. He was a Southerner who’d married into our East Coast Yugoslavian family; and, as a Protestant, he would surely land in purgatory after he died, but until then he joked with abandon in a breezy cracker voice while scandalizing everyone with bouts of blackout boozing. But it was Uncle Jim’s missing teeth that fascinated me. He’d been a stunt motorcyclist in the same carnival as my fortune-telling Aunt Zola when someone, the legend goes, tossed a cigarette under a wheel as he rode his bike around a centrifugal steel barrel. After the crash he worked as a carpenter and could build a house from the ground up. It was the false teeth, though, with their twin warnings against motorcycles and cigarettes, that made the deepest impression on me.
Evel Knievel might be seen as the redeemer of all carny daredevils — a motorcycle messiah to my uncle’s John the Baptist. Knievel is the subject of a rollicking rock musical written by composer Jef Bek that is premiering at the Bootleg Theater and which, besides offering a happy shuffle down Memory Lane in leisure suits and denim hot pants, invites us to peer into the Big Empty that was once the American soul. For in his 1970s heyday, Knievel tapped into a vast heartland that wasn’t so much emotionally exhausted by the national debate about the Vietnam War as it was bored by all the talk — a heartland in need of escape into mindless entertainment.
Enter Robert Craig Knievel, who promised every audience it would get one of two things: either the spectacle of man and machine conquering gravity — or a tableau of mayhem. His mission was said to be the restoration of faith in America and the return of the hero, but it was really all about soaring through the air in a glittering jumpsuit and cape at 70 miles per hour.
Bek’s musical opens in Butte, Montana, where young Bobby Knievel (Chuck DiMaria) works as a copper miner and part-time burglar. Knievel, who as a boy experienced a revelatory moment at a stunt-driver exhibition, makes a drunken barroom bet that he can jump his motorcycle over a VW Bug. From there it’s a straight line to his disastrous attempt to clear 13 double-deckers at London’s Wembley Stadium. Along the way there are broken femurs aplenty, comas and marriage meltdowns with his wife, Linda (Traci Dinwiddie).
At its core, Bek’s story differs little from the airbrushed Knievel mythology we’re used to seeing in TV movies: Knievel emerges as a young man with enough brains and gumption to realize he wants more — much more — than Butte can offer. The growing fame he receives from jumping his Norton over ever-widening parking lots of cars and Greyhound buses does not make him wiser, but only turns him into a reckless badass in search of his comeuppance. In Bek’s account, Knievel’s long strange trip through emergency rooms, bars and other women’s beds ends in the arms of Linda, the long-suffering wife who stood with him from the start. In this rock opera she follows in a long line of hillbilly muses, right behind Audrey Williams, June Carter Cash and Priscilla Presley.
Without getting into details, let’s just say there’s a factual disconnect between the show’s image of Knievel and the written record. This poetic-license-taking may be an attempt to aim for a wider family audience down the road, but it doesn’t detract from the musical. Bek has done excellent storytelling work in conflating characters and simplifying events. More than this, he finds a Faustian story at play, one personified by Father Time (Kyle Nudo), who first appears in the early-Elvis gear of black leather and cuffed jeans, later to morph into the sparkly black jumpsuit of the Vegas Presley era. Father Time is no benign wise man, but a Mephistophelean dealmaker who rechristens Bobby Knievel “Evel” and is always on the verge of dragging the daredevil’s broken body down to the underworld.
Bek’s score and libretto (music director Jay Dover provides additional music and lyrics) captures the adrenalized vocals typical of such period rock operas as Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar, and throws in a slight dash of Rocky Horror Show camp. There is a detectable sameness about the numbers, though, which strongly favors power ballads over a few down-tempo numbers. The evening unfolds in 45 scenes that race by in 90 minutes, but something’s missing that would lend perspective to Knievel’s motorcycle diary. As a chorus, the friends, newspaper reporters and business sharks never question the champion’s journey or his motives. This lack of commentary — and straight dialogue — and its limited melody palette ensure that the show isn’t as satisfying as Andy Prieboy’s tart telling of Guns N’ Roses’ rise and fall, White Trash Wins Lotto.
Nevertheless, Evel Knievel is directed with such over-the-top gusto by Keythe Farley and brought to such gaudy life by an energetic ensemble and design team that we forgive its flaws. DiMaria is suitably slick as Knievel, a showman very much in the vein of Buffalo Bill Cody and P.T. Barnum. He gets strong support from David Kirk Grant as his pal Tex Montana and from Andrew Wheeler as the conniving manager, Marty Sugar — who, like the real-life Shelly Saltman, writes a tell-all book that earns him a baseball-bat beating from Knievel. Nudo also memorably stands out as Father Time, but in a show of outsize characters, Dinwiddie’s Linda isn’t given enough script to chew on. She remains an underdeveloped character, little more than an addition to the seven-member ensemble that takes on the show’s multiple minor roles.
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Scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer has constructed an elevated horseshoe ramp (striped red, white and blue) that serves as a stage platform while reminding us of the track that was Knievel’s battlefield. Beneath this horseshoe is the power band that propels the evening: Bek (drums), Dover (guitar), Rick Zaccaro (bass) and Gabe Baldazzi (keyboards). Above, Brian Flemming’s video images, along with archival footage of Knievel’s stunt crashes, are projected onto a screen. (The file films remind us of just how many times Knievel crashed and cheated death — in fact, that’s all he seemed to do during his eight-year reign.)
Eric Snodgrass’ crisp ’n’ loud sound design carries the story’s power and glory without overwhelming this relatively small venue’s acoustics, while Francois-Pierre Couture’s light plot amply expands on the show’s many mood swings — which are aptly crowned and wrapped by Ann Closs-Farley’s hair and costume designs. (One typical scene features a redneck heaven populated by sexy angels holding tallboy cans of beer.)
Shamelessly cloaking himself in the flag while pursuing his fortune, Evel Knievel fed the nation’s brute hunger for disaster by martyring his own body on the chrome cross of his handlebars at a hundred fairgrounds and stadiums. Along the way he helped change America’s view of heroism. There was a time when a hero was someone who sacrificed health or wealth for the good of others. After Knievel we stretched the definition to include anyone who wore a costume and threw a ball or wrecked a car for a big check. As a kid I often wondered about the family legend of how Uncle Jim lost his teeth. Was it really because some careless smoker had tossed a butt beneath his wheel, or was it something darker and less heroic? With Evel Knievel, Jef Bek shows us a fearless man who could also be a little dark and something less than a hero.
EVEL KNIEVEL, THE ROCK OPERA | Music and lyrics by JEF BEK; additional music and lyrics by JAY DOVER | Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. | Through October 28 | (213) 381-7118 or www.ekrockopera.com