Actors are nothing if not resourceful. Take the group of four performers who wanted to stage a production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at the 1995 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. All seemed fine until they learned that another group was signed on to produce the same show. No, problem, they thought – we’ll write our own show. After all, they owned a book titled How to Write a Musical, so how hard could it be?
Since they were starting from scratch, the gang decided to do something decidedly different. Why not a Cheers-type story set in outer space? What emerged from the effort was Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, a kind of Rocky Horror meets Space Cop meets Barbarella disco cabaret show that went on to win the Fringe First Award for innovation in theater and outstanding new production.
Since then the show (book and lyrics by Charlotte Mann and Michael Fidler and music by Jonathan Croose) has played internationally, and now lands in Houston at Obsidian and SRO Productions to close out the company’s season. A season that already gave us two outstanding musicals (Passing Strange and Hedwig and the Angry Inch) but unfortunately here ends on a sour note.
As resourceful as the creators of the show may have been, no one has ever suggested that the effort is eminent storytelling or quality song composition. What we have here is sophomorically sexual camp, pure and simple. An absurd musical about a bar in outer space called Saucy Jack’s, run by a mercurial owner who collects misfit strays with names like Vulva Savannah, Booby Shevalle and Chesty Prospects, turns them into performers for his seedy club and then kills them with a stiletto shoe once they want to go on to bigger and better things. But when disco-loving crime fighters from a groovier galaxy, the glitter-bedazzled Space Vixens (Jubilee Climax, Bunny Lingus and Anna Labia), hear of the murders, they step in to solve the crime and save the day.
It’s all utterly ridiculous and if done right it should be commensurately ridiculous fun. Instead, thanks to the fact that almost everything in this production lacks oomph, all the joy is sucked out of the evening, exposing the musical’s many weaknesses and pitfalls.
Let’s start with the configuration of the show, which affords three tiers of seating, stadium, cabaret table and ringside to a catwalk-like small, raised performance stage in the center of the space. While we can applaud the idea of the theater space being turned into a club/strip joint-type atmosphere, director Chris Patton does nothing to make this setup work. What’s the point of cabaret tables if the action is going to interact with the audience only a couple of half-hearted times? Worse still, those poor folks stuck at the catwalk have to deal with at least half the show going on behind their backs while the other half happens, boobs and asses, right up in their faces.
Musically, this production trips and falls all over itself. Some of the fault lies with music director Faith Fossett, who can’t seem to get any of her cast to sing on beat, and some of the issue rests with the recorded music being played just too darn loud, drowning out any hope of understanding potentially amusing lyrics. Instead we hear something approximating this: blah blah blah blah Glitter Boots Saved My Life..blah blah blah. Catchy chorus, but no idea what else the song had to offer.
But at least that number actually did sound like a disco song. For a musical that promotes itself as paying homage to '70s dance music, only two of the 13 songs (not counting the superfluous four reprises that occur in Act 2) have any approximation to actual disco. The rest fall somewhere along the continuum of easy listening (Let’s Make Magic), ballad (Living in Hell), rock (Space Trucking) and bluesier offerings (Tortured Plaything), totally undermining the feel of the whole enterprise.
But even if some of the timing is off and the music is not on point, compelling voices might have carried us through. This has been one of Obsidian/SRO’s greatest strengths in the past — finding young, relatively unknown musical talent and wowing us with their vocal prowess. As smashing as this cast looked in their lamé, spandex, pleather and sequins and as hard as they obviously all tried, there wasn’t a truly strong voice among them. Off-key, weak, unexpressive or just not able to carry it home, this was an ensemble that was almost uniformly disappointing no matter the number.
But when it comes to the disappointment scale for this production, nothing tips it further than the lackluster choreography. In the past, Eric Dano has blown us away with his ability to take a small space and make it feel immense by virtue of his wildly creative and visually intelligent choreography. So what happened here? Why does everyone seem to be doing the hokey pokey as mimes in this show? No doubt this isn’t a cast blessed with the moves, and the small elevated stage they dance on really is too small, but with a bunch of literal evocations and clomping about up and down the riser stairs, what Dano gives us seems more like defeat than simply dealing with an undesirable situation.
The meh-ness of the production aside, in the final analysis, let’s turn to the pitfalls of staging a decades-old, sexually campy show in this climate. My Houston Press colleague Jef Rouner recently wrote a terrific think piece on the less than graceful aging of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
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While Saucy Jack doesn’t fall into the same unpalatable traps as Rocky Horror, it does have some narrative icky spots. The story includes a gay psychologist who treats a male fetish patient in hopes of bedding him, and a club owner who demands regular blow jobs from his staff as a punch line of sorts. But the most upfront plot line concerns the Space Vixens, glittery crime fighters revered by all for their talent and fabulousness. Instead of presenting as strong warrior women, from the minute they touch down at Saucy Jacks, the Space Vixens each immediately fall in lust with a bar patron and quickly neglect their crime-fighting duties. It’s a "woman as helpless in her attraction/more interested in love than work fulfillment" trope, and, frankly, in this day and age, it’s insulting.
Of course, the argument could be made that an analysis like this is taking the musical too seriously. At least the heroes ultimately are the Vixens, no matter their fall from grace. And in the end, punishment is meted out as warranted and everyone ends up powerful and happy.
If only the production itself resulted in the same power and happiness for all. We’d gladly let the analysis on this one slide and just enjoy the ride.
Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens continues through August 5 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For information, call 832-889-7837 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $30 to $37.50