Song and Story

Maria-Christina Oliveras, Alyse Alan Louis, Jared Zirelli (background), John Behlmann, and Lulu Fall in Bess Wohl and Michael Friedman’s “Pretty/ Filthy.” | RICHARD TERMINE

Maria-Christina Oliveras, Alyse Alan Louis, Jared Zirelli (background), John Behlmann, and Lulu Fall in Bess Wohl and Michael Friedman’s “Pretty/ Filthy.” | RICHARD TERMINE

One tends to think of “political theater” as heavy, pedantic, angry, and obscure, a kind of dramatic breast-beating self-conscious about its own significance. So, when political theater comes in a package as bright and buoyant as the new musical “Pretty/ Filthy,” it may take a few moments to realize how insightful it really is.

The subject here is “the other Hollywood,” aka the porn industry. Created by the Civilians, a company that specializes in documentary style theater, the piece is based on interviews with the stars and those behind the camera in the porn industry in Hollywood. What becomes clear is that it is a business, and like all other businesses, it’s one in transition.

Book writer Bess Wohl’s book is ingeniously subversive. She lures us in with the first few gags pandering to the audience’s attitude of superiority toward people who “have” to do porn. But then she drills down into who these people are, and we discover that they’re sympathetic, concerned about caring for their kids, looking to build a better life, and not forced into this at all. Who needs to be forced when there are so many willing participants?

The politics of porn, the passions of Poe, the perils of kindergarten

Wohl’s book also goes right to the heart of porn, skewering, albeit gently, the puritanical superiority endemic in a society nearly all of whose members have watched porn at some point. The show tracks the industry’s evolution from its 1980s high point with the introduction of the VCR to the threats the Internet poses to its revenue stream. Like so many industries, this is one being transformed radically by technology; it’s only because it’s porn that we pay closer attention.

What makes “Pretty/ Filthy” so engaging, in addition to Wohl’s smart book, is the score. Michael Friedman, of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” is a clever and incisive lyricist and his score is both complex and approachable. The songs — sharp and sophisticated — cover everything from picking your porn name to the effects of arousal on women and the challenges of men keeping erections.

The cast is outstanding. Alyse Alan Louis plays Becky, a small town girl, who becomes Taylor St. Ives (named for the apricot face scrub). It’s certainly a non-traditional ingénue role, but Louis has a great presence and wonderful voice. Luba Mason as Georgina Congress, an aging porn star, is sensational. She’s got a great voice and masters the hard job of conveying the ways the business has changed. Steve Rosen plays several roles, but is most memorable as Sam Spiegel, an agent. He’s got a kind of oleaginous charm that makes him as appealing and good-hearted as he is creepy. The rest of the company — John Behlmann, Lulu Fall, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Marrick Smith, and Jared Zirilli — are all excellent, each playing a variety of roles. Steve Cosson’s tight and focused direction keeps the show moving, and Neil Patel’s slightly cheesy backdrop and the effective use of projections by Darrel Maloney are also just right.

Like the best documentaries, the show seems to make no judgments about its subject matter, but through compelling human stories, it demands we take notice of something we may pretend doesn’t exist.

 

Scott Shpeley in Jonathan Christenson’s “Nevermore.” |  JOAN MARCUS

Scott Shpeley in Jonathan Christenson’s “Nevermore.” | JOAN MARCUS

“Nevermore” is the story of Edgar Allen Poe in his last days, and I’m guessing it’s the first steampunk musical, thanks to outrageously imaginative design by Bretta Gerecke. In fact, the design tends to overwhelm the thin book, which chronicles Poe’s life as told by a troupe of players who encounter Poe on his final train trip. Poe had a rough life — unlucky in love, unlucky in business — and just when it seemed it might be turning around, he dies.

The show was created by writer, composer, and director Jonathan Christenson, and for all the outlandish look of the piece (think Edward Gorey meets Lady Gaga), it’s a fairly traditional sequential tale in verse of Poe’s life that could use some editing. At two hours and 45 minutes, it is overlong, with not enough new in the second act to sustain interest as well as verse that begins to feel strained.

All that aside, the reason to see the show is Scott Shpeley’s sensational performance as Poe. He has one of those rare voices that is as versatile as it is beautiful and the effect is often thrilling. The rest of the six-member company playing a variety of roles are excellent as well, but it’s unfortunate that the concept trumps the content and lacks the tension we generally expect from Poe himself.

 

Let me just say I adore Christina Bianco. As a comedienne and singer, her impressions have been a highlight of “Forbidden Broadway,” and, in a recent cabaret show, I heard her sing the very best “Last Midnight” from “Into the Woods” I’ve ever encountered. As an impressionist, she is uncanny in her evocations of pop, rock, and Broadway divas, with rare comic virtuosity that has earned her legions of YouTube subscribers.

Christina Bianco in Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg's "Application Pending." | JOAN MARCUS

Christina Bianco in Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg's “Application Pending.” | JOAN MARCUS

So, it’s incredibly disappointing to see her in the pandering, shallow, and inept comedy “Application Pending” at the Westside Theatre. In playing all the parts, Bianco carries off the conceit with impressions that have to be both general and distinct. The results, unfortunately, are generic stereotypes of familiar characters culled from soap operas and bad comic acts. We have the flamboyant gay dads, the poor Latina janitor not fluent in English, the annoying Jewish woman, the entitled woman with the tortured lockjaw, and more. There isn’t an original character or gag in the piece, and authors Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg trot out jokes and torture the plot so that even poor Christine, the beleaguered kindergarten admissions officer fielding the phone calls, emerges as hateful and manipulative, or as the promotional materials would have it, “hilariously cutthroat.”

Actually, there’s nothing hilarious about any of this, and despite Bianco’s incredible technical ability, the piece instead comes off as shockingly condescending, racist, and homophobic, with every character demeaned and scorned. This is the lowest form of insult comedy, both juvenile and offensive.

What Bianco was thinking when she chose to get involved with this project is unclear. At the performance I saw, the house was only about one-third full, which probably means that vast majority of Bianco’s other 129,324 YouTube subscribers will never have to be subjected to this travesty and can continue enjoying the work she does so brilliantly.

PRETTY/ FILTHY | Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street at Pitt St. | Through Mar. 1: Tue.-Sat 8 p.m.; Sun. at 2 & 7 p.m. | $55 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | 90 mins., no intermission

NEVERMORE | New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St. | Mon. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $75-$115 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 45 mins., with intermission

APPLICATION PENDING | Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St. | Through Apr. 19: Sun.-Tue. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $79-$99 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 75 mins., no intermission

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