Avenue Q

July 29, 2006

I first saw Avenue Q at Steve Wynn‘s eponymous megaresort in Las Vegas.  It was shortly after it had won the Tony for Best Musical, so the audience was packed.  Packed with your standard Midwestern middle-aged Vegas tourists, which wasn’t the crowd that either the musical or the resort itself was aiming for.  But, in Vegas, you have to take what you can get.

I had only heard snippets of buzz about Avenue Q.  It was a stage show with puppets… who swear… a lot.  Frankly, I don’t think half of my fellow audience members even knew that much.  Steve Wynn apparently had a hard enough time “selling” the show that he even hired a fleet of taxicabs, completely covered in bright orange “fur”, to zoom around the strip, touting “Come see what all the FUZZ is about!”

Why was the year’s Tony winner for Best Musical such a hard sell?  For one thing, Avenue Q is a very New York show.  It’s about trying to make it in the proverbial “big city” in terms of love, career, and finding your purpose in life.  The set looks like a street in Brooklyn and the super is supposed to be Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman).  But aside from it’s East Coast-ness, the show’s biggest problem was trying to find its target age group.

To me, this was always very simple.  In American movies, you’re allowed one use of the f-word for a “PG-13” rating.  Anything more than that, and you’re automatically an “R”.  The f-word shows up about a half-dozen times in Avenue Q, so it’s pretty much an “R” rated show.  Simple, no?  As it turns out, no.  Stage shows aren’t held to the same standard a movies, so you can get away with a lot more under the “family-friendly” banner.  This meant that they could reasonably try to get teens into the audience.  And, they definitely tried. 

Mind you, this was also just as Las Vegas as a whole was in the death throws of it’s attempt to re-brand itself as a “family” vacation destination.  When they were building hotels shaped like fairytale castles and pyramids, with rollercoasters and IMAX theatres and motion simulator rides.  Before they gave it all up and settled on the decidedly more adult mantra of “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

But instead of pulling in the kids, they alienated the families by not being up front about how much swearing and sex the show actually contained.  Frankly, I think that’s all the better, because most teens wouldn’t get half of the 80’s pop-culture references (from Diff’rent Strokes to The Electric Company) anyway.  Why they didn’t just say, “Look, this is an adult show for the 18-and-over crowd,” I’ll never know.

So, as a result, I was stuck next to middle-aged Earl and Pam from Wichita Falls (who amusingly also didn’t get most of the 80’s pop-culture jokes).  Everything was generally okay for them until the show got to the gay stuff.  And there’s quite a lot of it in Avenue Q.  Just like a sitcom episode, there’s basically an “A” plot and a “B” plot in the script.  The “A” plot involves the main characters Princeton and Kate Monster and their difficulties with love and work.  The “B” plot involves roommates Rod and Nicky (who are thinly veiled references to Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street) and revolves around Rod’s status as a closeted gay man.

Avenue Q is a wonderfully funny show with a great gimmick and some excellent toe-tapping songs (with improbable titles like “Everone’s a Little Bit Racist“, “It Sucks to Be Me”, and my favorite, “The Internet Is for Porn”).  If you saw the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, you more or less know what you’re getting, as the songs aren’t too different from the likes of “Blame Canada” and “Uncle F**ka”.

But, for Pam and Earl… well they were wincing through most of “If You Were Gay”, and by intermission I could almost hear their eyebrows arching.  “Well, what do you think Pam?”  “Gee Earl, it was, uh, different.”  “Well, that’s one way to put it, I guess.  And you know, there’s a lot of that kind of humor.”  “I don’t care for the swearing.”  “Well, the swearing, yeah, but also that kind of… you know, with their agenda and all.  I didn’t come to Vegas to see that.”  “Oh, I know what you mean Earl.”

At this point, I wanted to turn around and tell Earl I thought he looked “extremely hot”, but I’m sure he would’ve thought I was commenting on the air conditioning.  Besides, Earl was monstrously unattractive, and I’m not that good of an actor.  “Do you think we should stay for the second half, Earl?”  “I don’t know.  Maybe it gets better.”  “I hope you’re right, Pam.”  These are the folks for whom Legends in Concert was made.  No doubt, they also think Cirque Du Soleil is too “artsy-fartsy”.

Anyway, now the show has come to London, where the gay thing is no big deal at all.  In London, the theatre district and the gay district are literally one in the same.  Even Disney’s stage version of Mary Poppins is situated directly next door to a nightclub named (somewhat over-simply) Club G-A-Y.  No, here the big drama was over the American-ness of the show, and whether Londoners would “get” it.  After all, they don’t have PBS here, and Gary Coleman was never a cultural icon.  After much debate, Coleman was left in (there really is no British equivalent), and lines like “Those stupid Polacks!” were changed to “Those French a**holes!” 

Did Londoner’s get it?  On the whole, I’d say no.  This is a country where the f-word appears uncensored on TV every night.  Gayness is pretty much accepted.  And, racism is less about off-color jokes and more about international terrorism.  In short, it takes a lot more effort here to “shock” your audience.  And, “shock-value” (from the juxtaposition of puppets with sex and profanity) was half of the show’s novelty in the States.

All the same, toward the end of the second act there’s a song called “For Now” that ends with a list of life’s annoyances followed by the consolation that the’re “only for now.”  At the end of the list, the cast yells out “George Bush!… is only for now.”  And, in London this got a huge round of applause.  Proof that some things need no translation.

More info: Avenue Q


The Rocky Horror Show

July 10, 2006

I’ve been lying for years, and it’s time to come clean.   When anybody’s asked, I usually tell them I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a midnight showing at the Nuart in Santa Monica in 1992.  Sadly, it’s not true.  The closest I ever got was watching it on VHS on a 13″ TV in a dorm room with two friends who had been, and were able to give me the running commentary on what I should be shouting and throwing (were I not in their dorm room).

The reason for this lie is simple: to say you’ve never been to a proper screening of the movie, dressed in costume, toting a bag full of toast and lighters and squirt guns, watching ugly men in drag on stage, doing the Time Warp (again)… well, if you haven’t done that at least once, you’re not only uncool, you’re officially lame.

Thankfully, now I can tell off all the cool-police with an honest conscience.  Rather than just seeing the movie is some flea-bag art-house in LA, I can tell them I’ve seen the live stage production in London (where it originated, before there even was a movie).  How cool is that?

The show was a lot of fun.  More fun than watching the film, simply because you could actually interact with the performers on stage.  A hundred people shouting “Slut!” in near-perfect unison at a celluloid Susan Sarandon won’t get you the sort of look that we all got from the actress playing her role in our production.  There were a few times where the wonderfully deadpan Narrator (Nigel Planer, who I’d have to describe as the British John Lithgow) got completely “frustrated” with us and stormed off the set.  It was great.

Everyone was perfectly cast, with the notable exception of Matthew Cole as Brad (Barry Bostwick in the film).  There’s not much I can say other than that he didn’t really look like the “Brad” type.  On the other hand, David Bedella as a less ghoulish, vaguely multi-ethnic and far sexier (than Tim Curry in the film) Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter was brilliant, really savoring the role and milking it for all it was worth.  Iain Davey was also excellent as Riff-Raff (played originally and in the film by the show’s creator Richard O’Brien). And, Julian Essex-Spurrier gave Rocky a lot of heart (to go along with those fantastic muscles).

By the show’s end, we were all standing up, doing the Time Warp again (the audience, many of whom were in costume themselves, demanded an encore), and laughing ourselves silly. It was the most fun I’ve had at the theatre in a long while.  And, I can finally tell all those snobs at the Nuart to take a flying leap.

More info: The Rocky Horror Show

Grumpy Old Women (Live)

July 5, 2006

The British love to complain.  Not in the American way, where we raise hell and refuse to calm down until we get what we want.  No, the British complain with humor, wit, and with the appropriate form, in triplicate.

Mind you, there are some Brits who don’t know how to complain properly.  For them, conflict can only be settled in one way, usually involving smashing a bottle over someone’s head.  But, that’s the younger generation.  For the older set… well, they can’t be bothered with all that.

Even better than the satisfaction of logging a complaint yourself, is the joy of hearing others complain about the very same things that get your dander up, so you can laugh and smile and say, “Exactly!” 

Somewhere along the way, the BBC discovered that the miserable, complaint-worthy experiences of everyday British life were universal enough to warrant a TV series.  Actually, a whole family of TV series: Grumpy Old Men, Grumpy Old Holidays, and the best of the lot, Grumpy Old Women.

I’m not exactly sure why the women are so much better at being grumpy, but they are.  Maybe it’s because women generally have so much more crap to put up with in life.  If you walk through a department store, for example, you’ll find the men’s department shoved into one corner of the basement floor, and you’ll generally be left alone there unless you want to buy a suit.  The women’s departments, on the other hand… well there are minefields in the Sudan that are easier to navigate.

Based on the success of the TV show, the grumpy old women have taken their show on the road, and now it’s landed in the West End.  The stage version is pretty much what you’d expect from the small screen version, but with one unfortunate difference: editing.  Where the TV show is fast-paced, compiled from clips of dozens of grumpy female comediennes, the stage version features only three (Jenny Eclair, Dillie Keane and Linda Robson), and a few of the stories tend to go off the boil.

That’s not to say that the live show wasn’t hilarious.  It was.  But honestly, if you’ve seen the home version for free, there’s not much reason to truck down to Shaftesbury Avenue and shell out 30 quid for pretty much the same thing.

More info: Grumpy Old Women (Live)

Blackpool Pleasure Beach (Part 5)

July 2, 2006

Aside from the beach itself, the casinos, the “family” bars, the “rock” candy, the Tower and the various other tourist traps, Blackpool is also known for live entertainment.  Specifically, old-school vaudevillian entertainment of the type that you’re unlikely to ever see in America (outside of Branson, Missouri anyway).

There’s the usual staple of aging stand-up comics who would probably be working resorts in the Catskills if thay had been born on the other side of the Atlantic.  There’s an oddly popular female-impersonator show called Funny Girls.  And, Blackpool Pleasure Beach offers it’s own selection of not one, but three shows for the whole family.

There’s Hot Ice, which is a Vegas-style (we’re talking Downtown Vegas here) show featuring scantily-clad showgirls on ice skates.  There’s Mystique, which is essentailly the same thing, minus the ice.  And, then there’s Eclipse, which is basically their attempt at doing Cirque du Soleil.

“A stunning circus musical”  is how they describe it.  Well, there was music, and there were circus jugglers, and I was stunned (in the “set phasers to…” sense of the word).  So, I guess it delivered, technically speaking.  But, Cirque du Soleil, it ain’t.

They’re really trying, and I give them credit for that, but the result is what you’d get if a travelling Cirque show (say, Quidam) had lost all of it’s drama, most of its talent, and only had $1.95 for sets, and three laser-pointers for lighting.  Oh, and a broken gas pipeline, capable of emitting enormous fireballs at the finish of each “act”.  And, there you have it.

The “acts” are the standard Cirque fare: tumblers, acrobats, aerialists, trapeze artists, and one of those guys who stands in a big metal hoop and can spin around the stage like a quarter on a tabletop.  As in Cirque, there are “clowns” who are mainly there to distract the audience while the trampolines and whatnot are brought out or put away.  In this case though, the “clowns” didn’t do any tricks or try to make us laugh.  They just did a sort of odd jazz-dance routine, which you could tell by the looks on their faces, they weren’t enjoying.  Jazz-hands, spirit-fingers, and a look that said, “Yes, we know this is the lamest show on the planet, and we’re very sorry you have to sit through it.  We’re not this lame in real-life, honestly.  Please don’t throw things at us.”

Sadly, we only saw half the show.  As we took our seats, we were informed over the loudspeaker that, “Due to injuries sustained during rehearsals, Vladimir will not be appearing in today’s performance.”  Who’s Vladimir, you ask?  Only the producer/director/star of the show!  He’s the one on the poster, in the acrobatic pose, wearing only a thong.  Apparently, when he’s not down for the count, he’s flying over heads of the audience, suspended on ropes, the thong within whiffing distance.

The (mostly female) crowd seemed genuinely disappointed.  And, rather than call up an understudy (“Nobody could possibly understudy for Vladimir!” I hear his fans shouting.), they just skipped over his act.  Never mind that part he’s supposed to play in the finale, when the cast all point in awe to an empty spotlight that I’m pretty sure was supposed to be for him.  Oh well.  The show must go on… even if it makes no sense.

More info: Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Blackpool Pleasure Beach (Part 4)

July 2, 2006

Valhalla (named for the after-world location in Norse mythology) is the newest, most elaborate and costliest ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.  It’s also the only ride there that leaves you cold, wet and wondering whether you need a Tetanus booster.  As boat rides go, this one is a little less Pirates of the Caribbean and a little more Jurassic Park: The Ride.  It’s a scary ride to be sure, with lots of plummeting in the dark.  But, the chills come more from the disgusting water than from the ride itself.

At it’s core, Valhalla is basically a rip-off of the Maelstrom ride at EpcotMaelstrom is a fun little attraction where you ride a boat upwards at the beginning and float past scenes of Vikings and trolls. (It’s part of the Norway pavilion at Epcot.) The mischievous trolls cause your boat to pivot around at one point and send you floating backward through the second part of the ride.  Toward the end, you get turned back around to travel forward again and are sent down a short flume toward a gigantic model of a North Sea oil-drilling platform.  (Norway: It’s not just Vikings and trolls!)

Valhalla rips off everything about Maelstrom, from the Vikings to the trolls to the backwards middle section (pretty much everything except the oil-rig, actually), and tries to dress it up as a stomach-churning thrill ride with lots of steep drops and fire effects.  They’ve also changed it from a placid slow-mover to a more thrilling shoot-the-chutes type of affair.  Unfortunately, in doing so, you lose all sense of story because the Vikings and trolls become little more that animatronic blurs as you slalom past.  (Which is probably all the better, since we’re definitely not talking Disney-quality robotics here.)

Before you get on the ride (as with most water flume attractions) there are about 100 signs telling you you will get wet on this ride.  Midway through the queue, there’s a stand selling disposable plastic ponchos for a few quid.  I didn’t need one.  I’d brought my own.  You see, I’d done some research on this ride and learned that getting wet was more than a possibility on this ride.  It was it’s raison d’etre

As you’re waiting in the queue for the next boat, you watch the boats coming back to the station, filled with people who are completely soaked through.  Even the folks with ponchos are wet.  And, those without… well it looks like they’ve just been swimming fully-clothed.  And, in a way, you can see that they have, because just as everyone piles out of the boat, a man moves in with a huge plastic tube attached to a giant industrial vacuum.  You look in the boat and see that it’s filled with murky water, half way up to the seats.

The vacuum man sucks some of the water out, but there’s still enough left to immediately soak through your sneakers as you get in.  The cheap plastic poncho suddenly feels terribly inadequate.  Oddly, the boat never stops at the dock.  You have to get into a wet, slippery moving boat if you want to ride, and if you can’t make it in by the time the boat reaches the end of the dock… well, that’s your problem, isn’t it?

As I mentioned before, the point of this ride is to get you sopping wet, and you’d think this would mostly occur as a result of splashing into water at the bottom of the flumes.  And, you’d be wrong.  You see, that’s how an “honest” flume ride would soak you.  But, almost nothing at Blackpool is on-the-level.  You realize this quickly as the ride begins and you enter the show building through the mouth of a giant Viking-helmeted skull.  There’s a curtain of water here, and it’s supposed to turn off a second before your boat reaches it.  But does it?  No.  And so, five seconds into the ride, before you’ve gone down a single flume, you’ve already had a gallon of water dumped on your head.  Oh, but the fun doesn’t stop there!

At about this moment, as your boat gets tugged up one of the many lift hills, you become aware of a funny smell.  It’s smells like that time you peed in the toilet in the guest bathroom that doesn’t get used that much, and you put the lid down, but you forgot to flush for some reason, and then maybe a few days later you lifted that lid, and… whoa!  It’s that smell.  And, it’s in the water, all around you (and now unfortunately on you as well).

And, try as you might to avoid this soupy brine, the ride just won’t let you escape.  You pass some Vikings armed with (oddly enough) fire-hoses spewing “water” right into the boat.  Later on something above literally dumps buckets of “water” on your head.  My personal favorite is a “water tunnel“, arcs of the stuff streaming over the boat… except not all the streams seem to going at full power, and so instead of passing over the boat, they’re aiming right into it.

Valhalla is the kind of ride where you spend most of the time with your eyes closed, not because the ride itself is frightening, but because you’re afraid of contracting conjunctivitis.  As you exit the boat (again without stopping), and the suction man moves in with his big hose (pun intended), you can dry off for a small fee in a sort of phone-booth-looking thing that will blast you with air to get you dry.  It’s basically the full-body version of those annoying air hand-dryers in public restrooms.  Except, there’s only one of these contraptions, so most folks are content to strip off as much as is legally possible and wring out their clothes by hand.  And, while you might eventually get dry, you’ll never get rid of the stench… of your Valhalla experience.

(Continued in Part 5.)

Blackpool Pleasure Beach (Part 3)

July 2, 2006


If you ask the locals, “What’s the most thrilling, terrifying rollercoaster at Blackpool,” you’ll probably be told it’s Pepsi Max: The Big One.  For a while (1994-1996), this was the biggest, fastest, tallest rollercoaster in the world!  It looks impressive, and at 213 feet tall, it still ranks as one of the most visually intimidating.  It was built by the same folks who created the Magnum XL-200 for Cedar Point (which is only 205 feet tall).  Did I ride it?  No.  I didn’t have to, because that giant monster of steel scaffolding is not the most terrifying rollercoaster at Blackpool.  No, that distinction goes to… the Wild Mouse.

What?!?  I know what you’re thinking.  Wild-mouse-type coasters are typically kiddie-fare.  You get in a little two-man car, ascend a small chain lift, and then zoom around a generally flat zig-zag track that slams you and your friend together at each unbanked turn.  There might be one little drop and a few “camelhumps” at the end, but that’s about it.  And just by looking at it, the Blackpool Mouse looks no “wilder” than any of it’s innumerable siblings at parks around the world (including Disney’s California Adventure, where the steel version is called Mullholland Madness).

But looks can be deceiving.  This was, hands down, the scariest ride I’ve ever been on in my life.  First off, most wild-mouse-type rides have cars with large side-walls and lots of padding.  Blackpool’s are more like small aluminum-covered orange crates.  Most of your body sticks out the top, unprotected, meaning that as you zoom around the corners, there’s little to keep you from being thrown out of the ride.  On my trip, the operators were nice enough to send me hurtling toward the lift-hill before I’d even managed to fasten my seatbelt.  On the lift hill, you begin to realize that there’s something seriously wrong with this ride.  

As you ker-chunk-ker-chunk upwards, a section of track crosses overhead so closely that I had to duck to avoid hitting it.  You could honestly reach up and grab hold of the track as you pass under it, and you’d easily lose your fingers if another car happened to come rolling through at that moment.  Once you get to the top, all seems normal, as you start to zig-zag around.  But, as the speed relentlessly builds up, you realize that you’re taking these corners way faster than any little wild-mouse should.  Then, you come to the drop, which turns out to be about a 30-foot near-vertical dive.  You look around for something in the car to grab onto, but there’s nothing.  Down and up you go, on some of the oldest, most rickety, jostley track you’ve ever been on. 

And then it gets horribly worse.  Still gaining remarkable speed, you round another set of zig-zag corners, only now you’re going so fast that the wheels on the right side of the care are literally leaving the track, and then slamming back down hard when you come out of the turns.  Let me repeat that.  The cars literally come off the track on this ride!  I don’t mean it felt like you were coming off the track; I mean you seriously, literally came off the track!  Holy crap!  Is this supposed to be happening?  Luckily there isn’t too much left, and the car lurches into the station where you narrowly avoid slamming into the car in front of you.  You wobble out and vow never, never ever to ride that ride again… and then you tell your friends, “Guys, you have to go on this ride! Just once!”

About now, you might be thinking you’d survived all that Blackpool “Pleasure” Beach had to throw at you.  Well, you’d be wrong.  After all, you haven’t been drenched in raw sewage yet… and that’s where Valhalla comes in.

(Continued in Part 4.)

Blackpool Pleasure Beach (Part 2)

July 2, 2006


Next up were the three big old “woodie” coasters: Grand National, Big Dipper and the aptly named RollercoasterGrand National was the world’s first “racing” coaster; that is, a rollercoaster with two parallel tracks and two sets of cars that ride side-by-side (hence the “racing”).  In an American theme park, there would be a little bit of “safe” distance between you and the riders in the next car.  But at Blackpool, you can (and are almost expected to) reach out and grab the hand of the rider in the car opposite you as you climb up the lift-hill.  Once you reach the top, you instantly hope the other person has a poor grip, otherwise you realize that you and your arm may no longer be travelling in the same car for the rest of the ride.

The Rollercoaster and Big Dipper are similar, with the difference being that the scenery is better on the Dipper and the ride is much, much smoother on the Rollercoaster.  The Rollercoaster also has a disused original 1910s ride vehicle in the loading area… which reassuringly looks exactly like the one you’re about to get into, except for the ripped-up velvet upholstery on the original, which has been replaced by ripped-up (and subsequently duck-taped) vinyl upholstery on the operating vehicles.  You can’t get much more “authentic” than that.

In the center of the park lies another of the oldest rides on record, River Caves.  It’s a slow boat ride that probably wants to be Pirates of the Caribbean, but ends up feeling more like El Rio del Tiempo (which is generally considered to be the single lamest ride at Epcot).  The boats themselves are tiny, with space for maybe four people.  Derek and I had to sit in separate rows in our boat to prevent the bow from sticking up out of the water.  True to the name, the ride takes you on a river journey through more chickenwire-and-stucco caves, past various sets ranging from the “primeval world” to an “undersea” section (where the air is saturated with thick pea-soup fog to simulate being underwater, or at least the sensation of asphyxiation by drowning), then past mock-Egyptian temples and Mayan pyramids.  It sounds impressive, but it all looks like it was done with cardboard, Scotch tape, Magic Markers and glitter.  It would’ve been a fun, relaxing ride except for the feeling I couldn’t shake: that I was being watched every inch of the way by about a million rats and cockroaches.  (For the record, I didn’t actually see any, but I just had the feeling that they must be all over the place after the tourists leave.)

At the back of the park sits Steeplechase.  This was probably our favorite ride at the park.  It’s a three-track racing “coaster” similar to the old Wacky Soap Box Racers at Knott’s, but instead of sitting in a “car” or some other typical ride vehicle, you straddle a life-size fiberglass “horse”.  That’s it.  No lap bar, no harness, nothing to keep you securely in place.  It’s as close to actual horse-racing as I’ll probably ever get.  You fly out of your seat as you “jump” over the gates and hedges, and you nearly slide off the fiberglass “saddle” as you zoom through the over-banked turns.  Provided you can keep any and all images of Christopher Reeve out of your head, it’s a blast!

(Continued in Part 3.)