Theater Play

For Box Office of the Damned, a musical send-up of all those who sell and buy tickets to the theater, Theater LaB paints its walls bright, happy swaths of yellows, reds and blues, using colors as a primary stroke of festivity. Hung on these walls are posters of famous shows, celebratory reminders of the best Broadway has to offer. Occupying a prominent corner is an elegant poster from Anything Goes; for this show, it's an appropriate choice.

That's because under Deborah Kinghorn's sportive, kitchen-sink direction, anything does indeed go. When accused of keeping customers on hold in order to party, ticket agents begin a reggae celebration. Women theatergoers having to urinate form a most precise chorus line. A wishful twit needing complimentary tickets who breathlessly reveals "I'm in the show" (but barely is) is played in drag. The opening, in a sort of foot-in-shoe equivalent to tongue-in-cheek, encompasses virtually every canonical dance move of contemporary American musical theater -- in two and a half minutes, on a stage not much bigger than a parking space. At a pivotal moment, hard-to-get tickets fall from the sky like fairy dust. There's even a dance-hall glitter ball.

It's a good thing that Kinghorn and her versatile, energetically excellent ensemble of six pull out all the stops, because as source material Box Office of the Damned isn't much. There are some two dozen lampoonish songs, but most are one-note and one-joke. Though quick in duration, they're not so quick in wit. Still, while Michael James Ogborn, who wrote the words and music, doesn't work up much of a comical sweat, Theater LaB's production does.

Box Office of the Damned pays lip service to an intentionally cornball plot, but its raison d'etre is its sketch songs about matinee ladies, late arrivals, exchange policies and the like. The ditties, though, dally. To cool-cat accompaniment, three condescendingly superior couples boast, "We See It All," only to then admit that, well, they try to. Gauche volunteer ushers, who take their jobs to get free seats, do "The New Non-Union Usher Polka." All there is to "Late" is a generic waltz accompanying tardy patrons. When you come across a song so paradoxically grandiose and awkward that it's entitled "Incantation to the Ticket Mother of Invention," you know that this is a show way too pleased with itself to be all that funny.

There are, however, some flashes of nimble frivolity. How does the box office deal with an overbearing customer? By singing "Go Away, Mrs. Levittown" as a barbershop quartet. And a sweeping, mock-earnest ballad, "Remember Me," is sung not by a star from a show you buy a ticket to, but by the ticket itself. Unfortunately, Ogborn prefers to make do with "Ladies, Please!" an obvious, scat-type rant about how sexist restrooms are. Then there's "Viva La Matinee," which has little life to it, since it comes from unimaginatively dithering blue-haired ladies, one of whom "Can't see too far/ (The state's revoked her license) / But she still drives the car." Most of the show's lyrics lean on rhymes that are similar groaners. The worst may be in "Daddy Long Legs," a vamp number about how a woman does what she must (which isn't much) to get her man aisle seats. In it, Ogborn has the temerity to write, "Only the dreamers / Could imagine his femurs."

Box Office of the Damned damns itself by taking everything too easily. But then Theater LaB saves the evening by making everything look easy. When the box office staff dons Rastafarian dreadlocks and sings reggae-style, they casually make island sounds from their office supplies by turning staple removers into maracas. Wheeled office chairs "accidentally" become a car full of matinee ladies, the blue-haired bunch pedaling little Fred Flintstone steps. "Late" occurs right on time, with a hurried knock outside tiny Theater LaB's door by scurrying "patrons" as soon as Act Two begins. Sexy backup singers in slinky black carry the torch for the ticket in "Remember Me," while in "Curtain Speech," a subscription pitch is offered in the sinister polite tones of Joel Grey in Cabaret -- until a Zero Mostel chorus from Fiddler on the Roof shimmies in. On the local front, Jekyll & Hyde is tweaked and Stuart Ostrow is invoked as a god.

Though Kinghorn should have known better than to allow for an overture (especially when the "orchestra" is a single, heavy-handedly played electric keyboard), though there's no need for makeup in a theater where the actors breathe on you and though her use of voice-overs seems arbitrary, the director nonetheless manages to pump helium into a mostly airless balloon, making it float giddily. When Kinghorn is on -- as she is here -- she's the most inventive musical theater director in town, at least on small stages.

Leading the ensemble is Jennifer Doctorovich, whom I don't get a chance to write about as often as I'd like. Whether as a garish Brooklynite, an efficient businesswoman or a one-man-loving "broad," Doctorovich is a strapping character actress who sings with brass and hoofs with sass, sort of what Dorothy Loudon might be if she were twentysomething.

The rest of the cast doesn't come in far behind. Young Jessica Calvello charms as Tracie, the new girl, a gangly goody-goody who literally can't say no; listening to her speed sing in one song that she has to "take a ticket, rip a ticket (hey!)" leaves you panting. As a clerk, Bethany Daniels amusingly switches gears from insincerely helpful when dealing with customers to sincerely hardened when not on duty. James Cowan's hints of Joel Grey are so funny they're creepy, and Paul Nicely does very well as the pseudo-imploring ticket in "Remember Me."

But perhaps everything is best summed up by Jim Phillips, and that's not just for his adorable turn in drag as a no-talent ditz of a chorus girl convinced she's really talented. No, why Phillips encapsulates Theater LaB's production is because, on opening night, while playing a very proper Englishman, his fake mustache gradually fell off over the course of a song. The crowd waited to see how Phillips would take care of the problem. It took him until the mustache landed on the floor to figure out how: he stamped on it, turning a mishap into something fun. That's exactly what Theater LaB does with Box Office of the Damned.

Box Office of the Damned plays through February 11 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.

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Peter Szatmary