Bad Revues

If I lie very still and focus all my attention on the tiny water stain on the ceiling above my bed, I'm able to forget the dream for minutes at a time.

The dream — a nightmare, really — has been with me since this afternoon, when I awakened from a nap, thick-tongued and filled with horror at the vision that had choked me awake with the depth of its awfulness. Like many of my worst nightmares, this one involved my sitting in the dark, facing forward while people far off in front of me sang and danced. In my waking hours, this is what I refer to as "my job." But sometimes, in my sleep, it's more than a way to make money from the safety of a folding chair. Sometimes, when I'm asleep, my job takes a nasty turn.

I'd dreamed I was attending a musical revue of songs made popular by Tony Orlando and Dawn. Which sounds completely absurd until one practices a little pop music math and realizes that, for example, popular singer Tony Bennett scored four No. 1 singles and eight Top 40 hits during his recording career, while popular singer Tony Orlando (with some assistance from a pair of studio singers who called themselves Dawn) scored three No. 1 hits and charted in the Top 40 14 times.

Tony Bennett is the latest popular performer to be canonized in a revue sketched around his Billboard oeuvre. And, with the current trend in "jukebox musicals," it's only a matter of time before we wind up with a revue of music by the other Tony. My dream, I'm convinced, was prophetic.

I attended the Bennett homage, which is titled I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett, at Phoenix Theatre the other night. It's a show bereft of torpedo bras and eye glitter, which is odd considering the effete posing of its all-male, relentlessly snake-hipped cast. This profoundly effeminate trio of men sang beautifully the songs of Mr. Bennett and flirted like mad with the women in the front row, blowing them kisses and saying things like, "Darling, my number is 555-1212, call me!" No one believed for a moment that any of these men meant anything other than ". . . so I can do your highlights and scold you about that nasty rayon blouse, girlfriend," because these boys were such obvious nancys that even the old ladies in the audience were rolling their eyes at these "flirtations."

Tony Bennett's way with a song certainly deserves some kind of homage, although inarguably one better than this mishmash, which trots out Bennett's hits one after the other with all the flair of a picket line, and is padded with banter so idiotic, it would have to be smartened up tenfold to qualify as just plain stupid. But apparently the theater gods are cranking out these 3-D greatest hits packages with such velocity that there's no time for clever scripting.

Musically, these live-action jukeboxes take the dunderheaded iPod approach to music — "Why bother to slog through an entire album of songs crafted by an artist who wants us to hear what he's up to lately when we can just download the hit single?" — and retches it onto the stage in musicals that take the easy way out by lifting their scores from pre-existing catalogues of popular song hits rather than offering something new or innovative. These K-Tel compilations come to life aren't only progressively more cheesy with each installment, they're also devoting themselves to less worthy subjects each time out. In a world where the music of Barry Manilow is the basis for two separate musicals, a revue inspired by the cheerful tunes of Wang Chung can't be long in coming.

How long before we'll be asked to line up for tickets to hear a collection of tunes made famous by Hall & Oates, I wonder. I can almost hear the tympanic virtual orchestra rendition of "Maneater"; can fully imagine the audience-participation number that will accompany "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)." And you know there'll be an interpretive dance of "Kiss on My List" involving tie-dyed toe shoes and requiring the patience of a Persian miniaturist to sit through.

Lest you think I'm merely riffing, consider this: In the past decade, theatergoers have been offered cabarets cobbled together from the work of ABBA, Carole King, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, and Queen. London's West End was even host to an award-winning Madness musical called Our House. Madness! Indeed.

Last year's All Shook Up (an Elvis revue) and Good Vibrations (a book musical scored with old Beach Boys tunes) were theater entries that nearly killed the Broadway subgenre that's come to be called "jukebox musicals," but unfortunately did not, leaving New York theatergoers to suffer through Lennon, a "bio-musical" of John Lennon that took its cues from the Peter Allen tuner The Boy From Oz but substitutes Yoko for Liza and Britpop for boy-that-got-away saloon songs. This season it's Jersey Boys, a Tony winner that canonizes Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and has just launched its national tour. While we wait for it to dock in Phoenix, we can bide our time with Arizona Theatre Company's Love, Janis (which I'm guessing will be narrated by the wistful but still-stoned ghost of Ms. Joplin) and Dream a Little Dream: The Nearly True Story of the Mamas and the Papas, which, because it is being produced by Phoenix Theatre, will almost certainly feature willowy, sibilant young men in the roles of Michelle and Cass.

I am bitter, it's true. I can muster no other response after having lost so many hours of my life to watching pop tunes mashed together to form a "story." I am bitter. Bitter and fearful — of the inevitable Bananarama musical; of opening the New York Times and seeing an ad for You Make Me Feel Like Dancin': The Music of Leo Sayer, or Too Shy! A Song Celebration of Kajagoogoo, or MMMBop: The Hanson Songbook. Terrified of falling asleep and dreaming of Oh, Mickey!, a book musical about the misadventures of a saucy teenaged cheerleader set to the tunes of Toni Basil.

The water stain is small, and shaped a little bit like Latvia . . .

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela