Take My Breath Away

Ever since Cats turned T.S. Eliot's widow into a multimillionaire and won the poet a Tony almost 20 years after his death, it has seemed like almost any shred of our odd culture could be banged into Broadway-bound material. After all, if a musical based on an obscure book of poems by one of the 20th century's most effete writers could become the longest-running musical in Broadway history, just imagine the other possibilities.

And so came the long, yawning march of musicals made from movies. There was Beauty and the Beast, Titanic and even -- dare we say it? -- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, to name just a few. When you look at this absurd list, Apocalypse Wow! and Die Hard! The Musical don't sound all that bizarre. Thankfully, the last two only exist in the hysterically absurd world created by Denis McGrath and Scott White in their wild Broadway parody Top Gun! The Musical. The satire premiered last summer at the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival to screams of laughter, according to all press accounts. The Theater LaB Houston performance is no different: The showstopping belly laughs on opening night made it hard to hear what came next.

The whole story takes place on an empty stage during early rehearsals for Top Gun!, the play within the play. The group has just been at it a few weeks and the seams are already beginning to fray. Writer Billy Palmer (Cameron Aiken) can't get the songs right. And he knows that if this show bombs as bad as his last two, he's going to be out on his Broadway-baby keister. Apparently, his most recent production, an "homage" to Hamlet, "played like Scooby-Doo." (He even once suggested a musical version of Gorillas in the Mist.) The young cast is just as hard up as the writer. Each sees the show as a big break, but only the deeply desperate would take a role in this stinker seriously. The producer (Jimmy Phillips) is trouble, too: The ex-military man who goes by "the General" sees Broadway as just one more way to pass on American propaganda; he wants to take the commies "down with the musical."

Throughout this messy madness, the hysterically funny songs keep the riot going. In "We've Got a Plane to Catch," Maverick (Jonathan McVay) and his now female sidekick Goose (Valerie McCann) drive jets with big round avocado-green steering wheels while singing, "We're the ones that fly straight out of hell without a scratch...We've got balls as big as houses." We're told that in the final staging, Maverick will be dodging dancing enemy jets as he sings.

McGrath gets a lot of mileage out of the homoerotic aspects of both musicals and the military. "You Can Ride My Tail" riffs on every gay joke ever told about the navy. The General fully approves, by the way, saying the navy "loves that shit," just so long as it's friendly, "Ellen-gay" and comes in "under the radar" -- cause "that's the navy way."

Both the real cast and their director, Ed Muth, seem to love the irreverence of these swats at our sick-puppy culture. Muth's silly choreography slides from Britney Spears to Bob Fosse to Destiny's Child. Greg Gorden's gay Iceman steals the show every time he makes a move on McVay's hunky but dumb-as-dirt Maverick. As the bombastic General, Phillips bellows out one hysterically un-PC line after another. And while the women are less successful singers, newcomer McCann is charming as the androgynous, T-shirted Goose.

Like it or not, the day of the concept musical seems to be here to stay. Here's hoping we won't soon see the likes of Hannibal Lecter singing seriously for his supper -- that is, unless McGrath writes it.

Main Street Theater's production of Joe DiPietro's Over the River and Through the Woods is as warm and sweet as a fresh batch of Grandma's cookies. It's true that this story about a young man's love-hate relationship with his overbearing grandparents is full of movie-of-the-week moments, but there's an undeniably good heart beating at the center of all that gooey softness.

The plot is shamefully simple: Nick Cristano (Anthony Marble) gets a promotion at work that will send him clear across the country to Seattle, meaning he'll have to leave his four grandparents behind in Hoboken, New Jersey. After Nick breaks the news, the four spicy oldsters spend the rest of the show cooking up ways to keep him from leaving.

The narrative plays out too slowly under Steve Garfinkel's plodding direction. But there's a surprising charm to the performances (despite the fact that not one of the four actors playing Nick's grandparents sounds like the Italian immigrant all are supposed to be). Especially moving is John Biondi's Nunzio Cristano, who carries himself on stage with such a wonderfully open truthfulness that it's hard not to care about him and his story every time he steps into the light. And Marble, who actually does look and sound like a nice Italian-American boy from New Jersey, is the sort of grandson any grandma would want to hug.

The characters come off like the genteel Southern version of what noisy New Jerseyans might be like (all are written as types). But nanas and grandpas everywhere have open arms full of endless love. And that's why so many patrons wandered out of Main Street Theater weepy-eyed and hugging their companions tight. They got to feel lots of grandma-love -- and watch somebody else bear the guilt that often goes with it.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lee Williams