The set up:
So it's Beckett-like, but instead of Godot we're Waiting for Johnny Depp, right? Um, no. While there certainly is lots of absurd behavior in this one woman musical about a struggling New York actress desperate to land a starring role in a Johnny Depp movie, an absurdist, incomprehensibly allegorical show this definitely isn't. Instead, the show is described as a zany laugh and cry, 'heartfelt spirited journey' about our desire to be famous.
The musical, which is the brainchild of Los Angeles-based writers DeeDee O'Malley and Janet Cole Valdez and arranger and composer Bettie Ross, got its first airing back in 2014 with O'Malley starring in the LA production. Fast forward a year later and several miles east and now Waiting for Johnny Depp, with presumably a new adaptation as TUTS Underground is calling this production a world premiere, is making its debut in Houston. Texas native Brooke Wilson steps into the role of Rita Donatella, a women who goes to crazy lengths to land the role of a lifetime.
Actually, according to Rita, (the strong voiced Brooke Wilson in a Joan Cusack-ish nerdy/graceless but still loveable kind of portrayal) she already has the role. "Kiss my Ass," the opening number has Rita, the scientist wannabe movie star, telling her boss to effectively take his lab research job and shove it due to her dream of movie stardom finally coming true. It's a musically soft but lyrically strong start to the show with turns of phrases like, "analyzing feces inside a rat... I'm just not down with that", setting the tone for a libretto that is often wry and cleverly written.
Bereft of a day job and fielding her mother's nagging calls asking if and when her now jobless and senseless daughter is going to be paid for her acting, Rita's movie role goes from certain to maybe to only if you jump through a bunch of ever changing hoops to is she really even up for the job at all? We learn all of this via her phone calls with her agent Fred, who constantly relays the bad news and new demands.
The show, directed by TUTS Artistic Director Bruce Lumpkin with set design by Matthew Schleif that effectively depicts a shabby New York Apartment (special nods to the water stains on the walls) is somewhat based on real life experiences. O' Malley and Cole quite obviously drew upon their own frustrations in continually trying to please casting agents, writers, directors and producers in an effort become the ideal candidate for the role. Even if it meant becoming someone and something you are not. No love letter to Hollywood, Waiting for Johnny Depp is most definitely a satirical look at the machinations of the movie studio system and the poor saps who would give up their left arm to be a part of it.
The first shot over the bow for Rita is being asked to lose 20 pounds and her "Nu Yawk" accent which she sings about in the amusing W.T.F., a potty mouthed stand against dumbing down her Queens parlance in a number that the audience are invited to sing and swear along in. As the ever changing demands keep raining down upon her, (make the character like Marilyn Monroe, no wait we want the role to be man-like, oh wait, now the new writers want long hair), Rita behaves like an actorly Pavlovian dog being rung by a Hollywood bell. Without question she does whatever is asked of her and often what is way beyond expected to disastrous results, as an over the top Johnny Depp genital tattoo proves.
Of course we know this is all going to wind up badly for poor hopeful Rita. We feel the stirring pangs of foreshadowing regret in the imminently catchy number "Next Week," when Rita brushes off her beloved brother Anthony in order to keep her schedule open for a possible call from the studio. In what is probably the hookiest tune in the show, Rita intones, 'Busy Busy this week, gotta do it next week, sorry, Tony'. We watch as she kids herself, knowing that disappointment is just around the corner. We also know that her new found romance with fellow struggling actor Phoenix isn't what it seems. All of which could have dragged the first act down into doldrums if it were not for the delightfully smart and peppy number "Craigslist," which is reprised at several junctures throughout the play.
With no money to pay rent, Rita turns to Craigslist to start selling her stuff (cash only) under the guise that what she owns is the property of a famous movie star (her). Wishful thinking, but it works. Her stuff sells and the number is a great ongoing gag of posting and sales as her apartment (where the entire musical takes place) becomes less and less furnished. But what starts off as a love affair with the online site ("Who would have thought that my shit would be someone else's treasure....marry me Craigslist!") takes a darker turn as the musical progresses. With literally nothing left but uncooked rice, a back scratcher and a mattress to her name, 'marry me, Craigslist" becomes 'bury me Craigslist' by the time we move into the second, far more maudlin act.
It's no surprise when we learn that the Depp movie is dead due to finance issues. And Rita's drinking and depression as she goes on one failed audition after another is also easily foreseen. Thankfully however we are given a series of numbers in the second act that save it from being one total Debbie downer cliché after another. A song cycle with a trajectory from "Got a New Job to Lost my Old Job to Quit my Old Job" sends Rita spiraling into part time work that uses her actorly qualities to great comedic effect. It's here, thanks to a singing telegram that the production finally shows off Wilson's vocal chops to their full masterful extent.
Without spoiling the unfortunate overly heart-string pulling home stretch of the show, Rita may seem like she's hit rock bottom, but O'Malley and Valdez send her further into the depths in order to make the show's point. Authenticity and love for what matters is the only way to succeed. Yeah sure, it's a valid lesson. But when so much of the musical has benefited from a refreshingly satirical viewpoint and wily writing, it's a bit of a disappointment when the show takes the expected hackneyed dark turn only to pop back up again into the hope and happiness zone.
There are most certainly laughs to be had in director Lumpkin's hit and miss staging of the show. The offstage wardrobe changes in Rita's apartment bathroom are not made less amateurish by her muffled talking from behind the set. The piano accompaniment on stage is a nice touch but is woefully made wrong when the pianist (with a risibly off key voice) unexpectedly breaks the solo voodoo of the show and joins Wilson in a duet. And then of course there is the neatly tied up in a bow "good for you" moral of an ending.
But even with these issues, Waiting for Johnny Depp , is without a doubt one of the first new musicals I can remember where not only did the lyrics stick but I found myself humming a couple of the songs on my way home from the show.
Yes, we know, the master of modern musicals, Stephen Sondheim, railed famously against the cult of the hummable. And it's hard to disagree in most cases. But in this case, the mixture of a predominantly smart and amusing story, a strong performance and musical numbers that not only entertained it the moment but also after the curtain went down, means that my resulting humming is the best nod I can give to this show.
Waiting for Johnny Depp continues through January 31 at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street. Purchase tickets online at tutsunderground.com or phone 713-558-8887. $25 - $49.
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