Friday, May 20, 2011
Vice Palace: The Last Cockettes Musical
The Thrillpeddlers theatre troupe, led by Russell Blackwood (below left and above, as the diva Lucretia performing as Caligula), has recently opened their version of the 1972 musical "Vice Palace." It is the third in a trilogy of wildly successful Cockettes revivals that started with "Pearls Over Shanghai" and continued last year with "Hot Greeks."
The Cockettes were a late 1960s/early 1970s hippie gender-fuck theatrical collective, centered in San Francisco and Berkeley, who performed midnight shows at the Palace Movie Theatre in North Beach for an appreciative audience that was liberally fueled with psychedelics, as were many of the performers onstage.
There's a good 2002 documentary called "The Cockettes," featuring the stories of Hibiscus and Sylvester and other notables who died young. The movie features interviews with in-house composer Richard "Scrumbly" Koldewyn who is one of the few surviving working artists from the group (above left, singing with The Jesters at the San Francisco Symphony earlier this year, and below, accompanying "Vice Palace" at The Hypnodrome).
1972's "Vice Palace" was a let's-get-back-together-for-one-last-show after the Cockettes had already disbanded, and included a part for the John Waters star Divine. The current version of "Vice Palace" has been massively reworked, with songs interpolated from other Cockettes shows, along with Koldewyn's huge personal songbook, and a few brand new tunes written for this run.
The original book was by the late Martin Worman, and it's an interesting take on Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" done in the style of early 1960s Fellini films, in particular "La Dolce Vita" and "Juliet of the Spirits." The costumes for the huge cast by Kara Emry are astonishing and witty, a mixture of Cecil Beaton, Piero Gherardi, and Danilo Donati.
The structure of the Poe tale, with its seven colored rooms involving different entertainments, is perfect for a loosely structured revue, and most of the show consists of a series of Cole Porter style novelty numbers by Koldewyn that are very funny, from "Moochie Coochie" sung and danced by Tina Sogliuzzo above...
...to "Swami HotPastrami" performed by Ste Fishell with the assistance of the two "boy toys" Steven Satyricon and Joshua Devore.
The story is set during a recurring Italian plague, evidenced by the theme song "There's Blood On Your Face." The wealthy aristocrat Divina (Leigh Crow, above right, with an excellent T.J. Buswell as Paolo the singer and swinger) decides to sit out the pestilence in her palace with her decadent "La Dolce Vita" era friends.
Rather like "The Decameron," Boccaccio's 14th century escape-from-the-plague tale, each guest is required to perform an entertainment, which become progressively more tasteless as the evening wears on, with L. Ron Hubby (above) insisting on singing "A Crab On Uranus."
Of course, The Red Death arrives uninvited during their final entertainment, a masquerade ball, and the piece ends in literal darkness. Though there's not a single AIDS reference in the updated book, the disease haunts the musical as many of its originators died from the modern plague.
It's still an enormously entertaining evening. Koldewyn has rescored much of the music for piano and Casio organ, played by Birdie-Bob Watt, to give it that perfectly bouncy Nino Rota, 1960s EuroPop "Juliet of the Spirits" sound. To order tickets for this summer's run, click here.