Boy Oh Boy Bands

Playwright Charlotte Mann has, according to her playbill bio, an outstanding handbag collection. What she doesn't have, unfortunately, is a particularly engaging story to tell in Hysteric Studs, which is currently floundering on a late-night stage near you. I was surprised and sorry to see a mediocre production from Stray Cat Theatre, a sturdy young company that has produced several notable programs in recent months. Hysteric Studs, which is playing on a double bill with Trista Baldwin's Patty Red Pants, isn't on a par with the company's past work.

In truth, not even the most talented cast -- which this production doesn't offer, either -- could make much of Mann's infrequently funny mash note to boy bands. What might have been a cool, campy send-up of teen stud pop stars is instead an uneven, often confounding comic about the backstage Janes and Johnny-come-latelies who run today's teen music scene. EnGarde is a boy band (think *NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys), a group of pretty young British things with marginal talents and -- because this is meant to be a spoof -- wacky hang-ups. There's Spencer, a teen spiritualist who's into "that meaningful experience thing"; Jack, whose alter ego, Troy, provides some of the least funny one-liners you've ever heard; Ade, a frustrated Cher impersonator; and Lee, a divorced fisherman who's canoodling with the boss lady, Maggie, a sort of Maurice Starr with breasts who -- if Cynthia Rena's performance is any indication -- thinks she's Cruella DeVil.

Rena's outrageous take on blowsy Maggie might have been funny if she'd sometimes played her at a slower speed, but she bellows every line, rolling her saucer eyes and indicating like mad the whole time. Likewise, Benjamin Monrad and Cameo Hill, as a pair of spiteful stylists, play each of their interminable scenes at fever pitch, lunging for laughs and, when they don't get them, falling about on the floor, moaning and French kissing in a particularly obscene manner -- a bit that the youthful audience found somehow hilarious.

Of the boy bandmates, only Samuel E. Wilkes turns in a truly focused, entertaining performance. His Ade is a self-contained camp fest, a spindly nancy boy who makes the most of every tossed-off line. Wilkes gets off the single best bit in the show, portraying an EnGarde fan in a Valley Youth Theatre tee shirt who professes his lust for his fave boy band. Amanda Kochert is also good as several characters, most notably Caz, the purple-wigged wife of drag-queeny Ade. She plays this British chippy with more warmth than she deserves, and had me counting the minutes until she returned to the stage.

Director Ron May would have done better to move Mann's story to America, thus sparing us the often-transient accents of his mushmouthed young cast. Random titling and baby photos of the boys are flashed onto a smallish screen throughout, but they're blurry and hard to see and don't add much to the story. In truth, the show only takes off when the band performs its solo bubblegum ditty, minutes before the final curtain. Would that the cast members had instilled their performances with the same humor and high energy they brought to this, their one and only musical number.

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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