Entrepreneur John Kenley, producer of over a thousand plays and founder of a summer theater dynasty, is the closest embodiment we have to Billy Wilder's Norma Desmond. Approaching the century mark with a career that stretches all the way back to 1920s vaudeville, the chorus of an Al Jolson musical, and the office of the legendary Shubert brothers, he is a precious artifact of another era. Like Gloria Swanson as the indomitable Norma of Sunset Boulevard, he is much larger than life and fervently devoted to perpetuating his magic to an unsympathetic age. Just as Desmond strove to keep her legend alive with her own comeback screenplay of Salome, Kenley's The Hoochy Kooch Dancer (at Tri-C's Western Campus Theater through November 22) is also a magnificently out-of-touch attempt to serve up yesterday's diversions.
This is not an evening for your average Joe at the mall, looking for the latest in computer software, but strictly a memento for aficionados of yellowing theater and cinema ephemera. It's sure to titillate the sensibilities of those who thrive on antique oddities, such as stuffed parrots or chipped Coney Island kewpie dolls.
Paradoxically, an institution devoted to edifying the up-and-coming is staging a living museum piece composed of conventions that were extinct by VJ Day. It is a play set in a carnival side show that views strippers and kooch dancers as something naughty yet seductively wholesome, where characters are referred to as "little chippies," "easy marks," and "boobs." We're in the world of early '30s Mae West movies, with tough dames tightly stuffed in their tasseled kimonos, good-hearted tarts yearning for respectability. Circus strongmen, sideshow fat men, and a "bird woman" named "Koo Koo" boisterously stroll through the play for atmosphere. There is treachery, romance, a half-man/half-woman freak dispensing self-deprecating wisecracks, a mandatory pair of lovebirds, a couple of murders for good measure, and even a love-starved geek--everything a '30s photoplay needs, except the "Legion of Decency" to crack down on suggestive dialogue.
A mundane reviewer may waste space on such picayune details as quality, plausibility, and insight into the human psyche, but to save time and verbiage, we will merely circle "none of the above." Instead, the focus is on the play's main claim to our affection: namely, its endearing vulgarity. Checking with Roget, it's easy to find that The Hoochy Kooch Dancer has all of the following: mauvais gout (bad taste, as in Pat Mazzarino doing that fetid "Louie-Louise" camp number); Philistinism (as bald-headed "Koo Koo" aspiring to raise her status by becoming a real live stripper); indelicacy (as in miscasting peaches-and-cream soubrette Beth O. Cubbison as "Lovely Lovell," wearing a costume that would make a graceful gazelle look like Clarabelle Cow--a role more suited to the talents of a road company Bette Midler; garish (as in wigs so bizarre you dare not speculate what part of the anatomy they sprang from).
Michael Stone's gaudy carnival set is a melange of rusted antique automobiles and grotesque painted signs; they offer an ideal milieu for the unfolding of Kenley's feverish goings-on. The music and lyrics--as, indeed, the play as a whole--seem to have been inspired by the Ed Wood School of Inspired Badness.
Director Dr. Frederick J. Perry is working with a cast far too young to have first-hand knowledge of the archetypes they are attempting to revivify. Yet, like participants at an old-time pie-eating contest, they undertake their task whole-hoggedly.
To use the ultimate litmus test for a production of this sort--is it any fun? Would a full-fledged Broadway revival starring Kitty Carlisle and Mickey Rooney send throngs of people dancing in the streets? The answer is a resounding "maybe." It's anything if not fun, and the Broadway treatment would serve to pleasingly gild a plaster of Paris lily.
Once again, John Kenley has amused those wonderful people out there in the dark. Like Norma Desmond, he's ready for his close-up.