In 1969 Rolling Stone announced, "The Kinks have arrived." And so they had, selling out four nights at L.A.'s Whiskey A Go Go and breaking nearly every attendance record in that infamous club's history. But the truth is that the Kinks and front man Ray Davies had been at the top of the charts for a good part of the '60s; their noisy two-chord riffs on tunes like "You Really Got Me" are the stuff of rock and roll legend. The only reason the Kinks weren't already superstars in the States by 1969 was that they'd been barred by the American Federation of Musicians from playing here because of "unprofessional conduct" on their 1965 tour.
Once they had finally "arrived," Davies and his band spent most of the '70s falling to the bottom of the charts. But that didn't matter much. The Kinks had developed a whole new status: They morphed from rock superstars to cult heroes and started writing and performing that most favorite of all '70s musical genres, the rock opera. These theatrical ventures were, for the most part, soundly panned by the critics (not that critics matter all that much to cult music gods). But in 1975, Dave Hickey wrote in The Village Voice that Davies' A Soap Opera was one of "only two really successful rock theatricals." While the show was not "original" or "profound," he wrote, it was "good-natured and intelligent -- a piece of very funny, humane musical entertainment." Not exactly front-page scrapbook material, but no kick in the pants, either.
And so it makes perfect sense that our own local cult heroes, director Jason Nodler and his troupe at Infernal Bridegroom Productions, have put together a bouncy production of A Soap Opera at The Axiom that fits nicely into Hickey's rather sweet assessment of the show. The rangy, ragged music -- played for all it's worth by skinny, sexy Anthony Barilla and his terrifically raucous band -- is enough to make anyone with a soul nostalgic for the days when popular music could be considered "humane." And the story about a tortured everyman hauling his hind end through the drudgery of middle-class life had the Axiom audience howling with laughter on opening weekend.
A Soap Opera
The Axiom, 2525 McKinney
Fridays and Saturdays through November 30. 713-522-8443; $12-$17
The Starmaker opens the whole shebang, swaggering out onto the stage in a white polyester suit (no shirt, of course), where he dons a silver lamé cape and announces, in song, that he can "turn the most ordinary man in the world into a star." To prove it, he picks a run-of-the-mill suburban sad sack named Norman to transform. In order to find some rock and roll inspiration in Norman's workaday life, the Starmaker enters Norman's house, snuggles up to Norman's wife, slogs off to Norman's office and "mixes with his workmates" over a few "jars" of beer, all in the name of concept-album research.
Cary Winscott plays both roles with boyish energy, strutting around in his big sunglasses, belting his songs into a big microphone and enjoying every preening rock-star minute of it. He might not glow like Davies (the original Starmaker) in all his bony British sexiness, but Winscott is full of good humor, playing the fool for the good of the show.
A Soap Opera takes affable if old-hat pokes at the whole music idol business -- the star is an indolent fop, of course, who's horrified at the drudgery of ordinary life. But there's an odd and unexpected twist toward the end when it becomes unclear just who's calling the shots: Is the Starmaker impersonating Norman? Or is Norman simply pretending to be a star?
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Life in the slow lane may be an enormous drag, but it still manages to inspire a few loud and lusty tunes. Winscott is backed up by four singers -- Cathy Power, A.J. Ware, Jodi McLaughlin and Christa Forster -- who wiggle and shake with rock and roll girl power. Tamarie Cooper is the woefully put-upon English wife who comes wonderfully alive in the last number, throwing off her carefully coiffed wig, dragging men from the audience and dancing like a woman on fire.
But the real stars in this production are the music and the band, whose members deadpan the whole thing in classic rock style. Blank as their faces might be, it's hard not to watch Barilla and his musicians as they riff through the score, switching instruments and smirking at moments they enjoy. They do, after all, take up most of center stage, pushing the actors to the edges.
IBP also does its usual technical magic. Designer Kirk Markley puts us in the middle of Anytown, with black-and-white comic book-style skyscrapers towering over the stage. And he creates a hysterical cartoon bed for the Starmaker's encounter with Norman's wife. Katie Jackson's ever-changing billboard at the back of the stage is a blast. Each song is announced by a new sign that pokes some good fun at our weird cultural obsessions, including retirement communities and Armani suits.
All this comes together for an hour and ten minutes of relatively mindless fun that will make you want to pull out your old Kinks albums and reminisce about simpler days, when rock and roll ruled.