Who’d have figured that old Roger Corman B-movies would have second lives as stage musicals? Churned out quickly in the 1950s and early ‘60s on shoestring budgets, Corman’s films, many of the sci-fi or horror variety, were not really intended for posterity. But first Little Shop of Horrors took successfully to the stage, and now Beatsville, based on Corman’s Bucket of Blood, is having its world premiere at Asolo Rep. Can adaptations of Attack of the Crab Monsters or Not of This Earth be far behind?
There are certain similarities between Shop and Beatsville, at least in the line-up of characters. Beatsville’s Walter (Max Crumm) is a close cousin to Shop’s Seymour (nerd/heroes), while Shop’s Mr. Mushnik bears a resemblance to Beatsville’s Leonard, played by Michael Thomas Holmes (boss/father figure). And Shop’s victim/bimbo Audrey gets a bit of a mashup in Beatsville between suburban girl Carla (Lauren Marcus) and vamp Alice (Billie Wildrick).
But Beatsville, with a book by Glenn Slater (School of Rock, Sister Act) and music and lyrics by his wife and writing partner, Wendy Wilf, has a vibe all its own. Set in 1959 Greenwich Village, when the honest rebellions or explorations of the Beat era have apparently turned largely to cool posing, the musical swings naturally to a mostly jazz score, interpreted by musicians and vocalists more free to improvise than in your typical Broadway musical.
Walter, as mentioned, is a nerd, a busboy at the Yellow Door Café who gets the cold shoulder from all the hipsters who hang out there, from intense poet Brock (Brandon O’Neill) to musician Thelonious (Clifton Oliver) to the chicks (Taryn Darr and Sarah Rose Davis) who smoke and sneer. But he gets help at “fitting in” from a somewhat mysterious trio promising to make him hip (Cayman Ilika, Charlie Johnson and Connor Russell)—although their assistance may exact a high price.
First step to cool: Walter accidentally kills the cat of his nosy landlady (Ann Morrison) and then stuffs him in clay to become a sculptor to impress new girl Carla. Amazingly, everyone loves his work. Second step: Walter graduates to human sculptures when a narc named Lou (Andrew Chappelle) visits his apartment on the trail of drugs. Can a murderous rampage be far behind?
While writers Slater and Wilf will no doubt continue to tinker with Beatsville as it heads to Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre (co-producers) and then, hopefully, to Broadway, the pieces are mostly solidly in place in this production. Wilf’s songs (orchestrated by Steve Orich and led by music director Kat Sherrell) have just the right loose feel, especially when accompanied by choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter’s stylized moves. Group numbers like “School of Cool,” “Dead Cat” and “Take the Dough, Daddy-o” set the tone for the Yellow Door and its denizens, while more traditional show numbers like “Because of Her” and “Forever” offer a chance for Walter and Carla’s relationship to grow.
Hunter’s choreography is just great throughout, ranging from outrageously sexy on Alice’s “Gas Me” (played to the hilt by Wildrick) to silly and over-the-top, as on “Bop Cop,” where Lou swings a mean rolling pin. The direction by Bill Berry keeps the action moving fast and fluidly, aided by David Gallo’s rotating set, switching easily from the café to Walter’s bare, shabby apartment. And David C. Woolard’s costumes—black-and-white-striped tops, berets, black leotards, etc.—instantly evoke the era as we think we remember it.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Crumm easily transitioning between geek and hip artist and back again. Marcus delivers the goods as sweet but rebellious Carla, and Holmes, Morrison and Kevin Pariseau (the latter in several roles) provide comic zest. While a full Broadway production might require a larger ensemble, in this show it’s easy to identify the individual personalities on display.
There’s confusion at times in Slater’s book, and the song “Walter Paisley is Born,” while certainly true to the Beat sound, doesn’t quite hit the mark as the Act I closer, at least not on opening night. But with the united talents at work here, there’s little doubt such problems can be fixed.
Beatsville continues through May 28 in the Mertz Theatre; for tickets, call 351-8000 or visit Asolo Rep online.