Camp Musical Drags

Show #41: Scalpel!, Brava! for Women in the Arts, April 2.

Emily McGowan, Arturo Galster and Cindy Goldfield in Scalpel! Photo by Kent Taylor Photography

A rock musical about plastic surgery is one of those things, of which there are many, that could go very right or very wrong, and you just never know until you get there. Celebrating its world premiere at Brava! for Women in the Arts after a 2003 New York Fringe Festival run, Scalpel! is a campy satire in which a whole lot goes on but not much goes right.

It’s written and directed by D’Arcy Drollinger of the band Enrique, who also played gushy TV reporter Kitty Kelly Brown the night I saw the show in a bit of a cast shuffle. The usual Kitty, Leanne Borghesi, subbed for the absent Katie Rubin as sterotypical Latina maid Martha.

Our heroine, chirpy Stepford wife Jacquelyn (an appealing Cindy Goldfield) has Martha remind her of everything, even her own favorite color.  Her only friends are a pair of cocktail-swilling socialites addicted to plastic surgery. Pepper Van Allen, a drag role played with bitchy panache by Arturo Galster, is running for congress with the slogan “making America beautiful again.” Emily McGowan is particularly amusing as Fritzy Fritzgerald, whose face and body are pulled so tight she can make only the tiniest movements.

When Jacquelyn is dumped by her husband, she succumbs to peer pressure to visit plastic surgeon Dr. Bulgari (an affectless Mike Finn), whose clients all robotically rattle off the same litany of his virtues every time anyone mentions his name. When a code phrase is spoken over the phone they enter a murderous hypnotic trance, a little nod to The Manchurian Candidate. Not only do they aspire to an oddly matronly uniformity—essentially the more they look like Joan Rivers, the better—these brainwashed Fembots kill off congressmen or anyone who stands in their way toward jamming through legislation that has something or other to do with cosmetic surgery—liposuction for infants, stuff like that.

The setup is hopelessly convoluted but sort of clever, but it’s full of corny punch lines that fall flat. “You’re long in the tooth,” says Jacquelyn’s husband, one of several interchangeable Ted-Koppel-haired guys played by Finn. “I suppose there’s no point in seeing a dentist,” she replies.  Cue crickets. Brown hosts a TV newsmagazine called Hardballs, a joke that’s nearly lost because while Drollinger pronounces it with emphasis, his “s” at the end sounds more like a “v.”

Seemingly swishy British butler Jeffrey (strong-voiced David Bicha), who runs around in a chauffeur’s uniform, turns out to have a seemingly inexhaustible array of useful skills from past occupations and to be fiercely devoted to Jacquelyn. Marilynn Fowler is suitably imposing as Bulgari’s slinky bodyguard Angelica.

Arranged by Drollinger and a five-piece rock band, with musical direction from Scrumbly Koldewyn, a few of the songs are pretty good, such as the propulsive number that ends the first act with a bang and another that might be called “Beauty Is the Beast” (there’s no song list, so any titles here are guesses). Most of them are just meandering, with muddled melodies and muddy sound that makes the vocals hard to understand.

It’s clear that a lot of effort went into the Matrix-style fight scenes choreographed by Dave Maier, between the dummy legs for flying kicks and the legion of black-clad ninja stagehands tasked with propelling people and props through the air, which makes it seem especially a shame that the resulting sequence is so undynamic and hard to follow.

There are plenty of clever staging choices, from the cardboard cutout props to acting out a fight in a security monitor with hand puppets, but the execution is slack in Drollinger’s loose, laissez-faire staging. Tina Banchero’s choreography feels fairly ad hoc, and Cathie Anderson’s lighting is at times curiously misplaced, like a rock concert on autopilot. There’s a lot of good raw material somewhere in the show’s two and a half hours, but it’ll take more than a few nips and tucks to make it presentable.

Scalpel! runs through April 17 at Brava! for Women in the Arts, 2781 24th St., San Francisco.

Bonus links: My writeups of musical director Scrumbly Koldewyn’s far better and even campier endeavor, Pearls over Shanghai, and of Brava’s recent Beebo Brinker Chronicles.

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