Imitation is not only the highest form of flattery, it's also another measure of our theater's shrinking influence on the culture at large.
From the 1920s until about the 1970s, the theater was a common source of material for the movie and television industries. The number of theater works based on movies is comparatively slight in those decades, despite film's Golden Age. Significantly, since 1980 that trend reverses: Now the theater industry is using the movie and TV industries as source material rather than the other way around.
There are some notable exceptions. You'll find slightly more than two dozen movies and TV movies adapted from stage works since 2000, including Angels in America, Closer, Rabbit Hole, Nine, Proof, Doubt and Dreamgirls.
But the number of plays — primarily musicals — spun from movies and TV shows in the same period is more than three times as high. Examples include 9-5 (born at the Ahmanson), Billy Elliot, The Color Purple, The Full Monty (born at La Jolla Playhouse), Grey Gardens, Hairspray, The Graduate and even Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical.
This trend suggests two realities: One is that as it struggles to remain relevant, the theater is imitating ideas from more commercially viable art forms. The second is that the theater is no longer the source of original ideas it once was, no longer a standard of intellectual preeminence and property.
While there are short-term advantages to this recycling approach, there are dire long-term consequences. Sure, if a musical is a parody of a movie or a TV show, rather than just an homage, the production can get good mileage from popular familiarity with the source material, while showing off the imaginative and campy artifices that make live performance so distinctive. For instance, a grandiloquent movie scene of a train crossing a prairie can be represented by an actor pulling a toy train across the stage by a string. But if our theater no long trusts itself to foment original ideas, becoming a follower rather than a leader, it further consigns itself to the margins of cultural relevance.
While Rick Sparks is directing a stage version of episodes from I Love Lucy called I Love Lucy, Live on Stage, which just opened at Greenway Court Theatre, a perky young company called the Renegade Gang is performing Bayside High School Musical at Burbank's Victory Theatre. Written and directed by Ren Casey, the show is a musical parody of the 1990s sitcom Saved By the Bell, with actors who display a sometimes stunning capacity to impersonate the actors from the TV series.
The show has many virtues — being “renegade” is not one of them.
Casey's copyright on the script is dated 2003 — that's three years before Disney's stage versions of the High School Musical franchise got under way. So Casey's idea may have predated Disney's and certainly predated Fox's Glee, which didn't show up for more than a decade after Casey registered his script with the Copyright Office.
It is, nonetheless, showing up in Burbank in the long wake of those successes, and the impression of been-there, done-that is a tough one to fight, whether or not it's fair.
With about four plots in 60 minutes, director Casey's sleekly staged production uses campy devices to gently rib the camaraderie of the show's teens and teachers, their obsessions with dating and cheating and rejection and the show's squeaky morality — “just say no to drugs” shows up as a ditty (Lynn Downey's Jessie Spano is addicted to caffeine pills) that has echoes of Reefer Madness. In one episode of the TV show (not depicted in this musical), a student employee in the campus gym is sexually harassed by her male supervisor, finally takes a brave stand against him and gets rhetorical support from her peers, to canned audience applause. The show clearly was trying to entertain and Do Good with a social conscience at the same time.
Casey portrays double-timing A.C. Slater with a charming, thick-headed swagger. Eddie Zamora does a terrific caricature of Zach Morris, the blond jock with his thumbs perpetually hooked into the front belt straps of whatever trousers he's wearing — 'cause he thinks that looks cool. He pulls off the role with a gormless haughtiness that's also very funny. Ellen Caranasos' biker/outcast Tori Scott has the pipes in the ensemble, belting out a torch song that rattles the instruments on the lighting grid.
The accompaniment is canned, but in a parody of a sitcom, that may well contribute to the show's cheesy, sometimes sloppy delight.
The uncredited costumes ape those on the show.
The company lends a vivacity to the effort, which offers a pleasant diversion for those as interested in Saved by the Bell — and all it represents — as the creative team.
The larger question is what shows like this say about our theater, particularly in a TV town, and how it sees its purpose.
BAYSIDE HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL | By Ren Casey | Presented by the Renegade Gang at the Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank | Wed., 8 p.m.; through Oct. 26 | (818) 841-4404, victorytheatrecenter.org