October 24, 2007

"The Game Show!" TheatreNow at the San Anselmo Playhouse, through Nov. 3.

Fellini Americana

From left, Dave Estes plays sidekick Zero Agnew Pastel;
Gail Gongoll is head 'spokesmodel' Zanzibar and Larry Williams
is game show host Art Sparks in TheatreNow's 'The Game Show!'
(Photo provided by TheatreNow)

By Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

Article Launched: 10/24/2007 04:21:40 PM PDT
Marin Independant Journal

Five minutes into the world premiere of "The Game Show!" - TheatreNow's latest musical homage to American kitsch - I began to wonder if there was a point to any of it.

Fifteen minutes into "The Game Show!" I began to wonder if there was a point to, well...anything.

This character-driven musical tribute to 1970s TV game shows, which runs through Nov. 3 at the San Anselmo Playhouse, was written and directed by Petaluma shlockmeister Larry Williams ("Trailer Trash: The Musical," "Buck and Betty's Chuckhouse of Fun") from (arguably) an original concept by Dave Estes. There are elements in this sketch-heavy saga that are so authentically bad - and others, so incongruously inspired - that the effect it had on me can only be described as the psychological equivalent of the deep sea bends.

Every time I thought I had handle on why I disliked this show, it would go and give me a reason to love it. It wasn't just disorienting; it very nearly put me into an actual personal and professional crisis.

Remember the scene in the first movie of "The Producers," after "Springtime for Hitler's" big opening number, where the camera cuts to the audience, mouths agape? That was me at the end of this show's big opening number, "It's the Game Show Show." Only I was sitting alone in my own row. Curled up in my seat. Peering over my program. Through the spaces between my fingers.

Imagine, if you will, a television soundstage in '70s-era Culver City, all decked out in Institutional Avocado Green and Tequila Sunrise Orange (thanks to minimalist set design of Steve Murch). You are a member of a TV studio audience of "The Game Show," hosted by the popular Art Sparks (Larry Williams). It's only a few minutes to air time and you are being jollied up by Sparks' sidekick, Zero Agnew Pastel (Estes, looking like a cross between Soupy Sales and Sonny Bono in a bad toupee). As Frank the cameraman (who, with his crew cut and pocket protector looks just like Michael Douglas in "Falling Down") starts to count down to air time, it is announced that after 10 years of hosting the show, Sparks will announce his retirement and his successor.

Ersatz psychedelic dream sequences with show staffers coveting Art's job abound.

Out spill the Art Sparks Singers, the Arts Sparks Dancers and the Arts Sparks Players, a veritable riot of Pepto Bismol pink, lime green and necrotic blue polyester. The Vanna White "spokesmodels" nearly outnumber the audience and lead the cast in a huge production number that is so effervescent and nose-scrunchingly cute, that you want to pick up the entire cast and just burp it. One can only hope that it was deliberately choreophraphed that way by Sherry Hines.

The "spokesmodels," who are dressed just like '70s PSA airline stewardesses, are leading a kind of "L.A. Hustle" line dance with hand movements that are something akin to hula (as they appear to be telling some kind of story with their hands involving sunshine) - vaguely menacing in their head-nodding, finger-pointing, frozen-faced glee.

This is MY nightmare! (I thought to myself, noting with some disquiet that I was talking to myself.) How did they know?? Has this show been reading my thoughts?!

Art’s sidekick, Zero Pastel, moves through the crowd with a microphone asking audience members what they would call their own game show. He takes one look at me and gives me a wide berth. Good thing, too, cause mine would have been, “Somebody Please Shoot Me.”

I felt like some rogue computer in a “Star Trek” episode having just been presented with the “I-Never-Lie” paradox from Capt. Kirk, causing my circuits to fry (“Wait…It’s bad…but it’s so bad it’s good.…but if it’s good…how can it be bad…and if they don’t know it’s bad…how can it possibly...be...?")

My thoughts were racing as I began eyeing the exits. No way out....No way out... I actually began fantasizing the ultimate bad review: CRITIC FOUND HANGED IN THEATER MEN'S ROOM IN APPARENT SUICIDE. ("I've never seen anything like it," one witness said. "After the opening ensemble number, he just calmly got up and walked to the men's room. He didn't even wait for intermission!")

But - and it's a big but, Bob - gas smells awful, nooses give, guns aren't lawful ... might as well wait 'til after intermission.

Then, following a few lame sketches (a “Charlie’s Angels” fashion sketch, “Spandex and Lycra,” that needs to be cut, ditto an interminable “Big Fat Cow” commercial) - all of which serving only to deepen my despair - out of nowhere comes 14 year-old Cayleigh Goodson, the very soul of innocence. As the cacophony around her subsides, she steps into a single spotlight at center stage and begins to sing, like the clear, pealing of a bell, something about being the daughter Art Sparks never knew.

Somehow, at that moment, young Cayleigh redeems them all.

I'm sitting up in my chair now. There follows a show-stopping number, "Dancing Queen," by the impossibly talented Daniela Innocenti-Beem, who belts it out with so much vocal power that you don't even mind it's disco.

Later, another of the Art Sparks Singers, Julie Ekoue-Totou, gives Innocenti-Beem a run for her money with "Last Dance." There is world-class talent in this show.

The great moments started multiplying. There is an inspired running gag involving “Zanzibar," the apparent matriarch of “spokesmodels,” who can only speak in TV product slogans due to a tragic head injury. Not many running gags gain in the retelling, but this one goes from annoying non-sequitors --“Uh-Oh! Spaghettios!” -- to surprisingly deep commentary, as her character evolves into a kind of Greek Chorus of One -- “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” (You can say that again, sister.)

When Frank the poker-faced cameraman suddenly discovers his hips when compelled to do a Tom Jones medley, it brings down the house. A screamingly funny “K-Squat, One-Hit, One-Word Wonders” commercial features “Miniature masterpieces and precious pieces of personalized pronouns." And a subplot that hints at an affair between host Art and the Art Sparks Orchestra Director -- “…and now the pretty pause of Priscilla Poindexter” (played by Caylia Chaiken) -- is priceless. The breathy musical director of this journeyman five-part ensemble dedicates nearly every song to Art, and every one of them might as well be “Happy Birthday Mr. President.”

And throughout it all, moving through the chaos with the eerie confidence and distracted calm of Peoples' Temple founder Jim Jones, is show-creator Williams as Art Sparks. His commitment to the role is nothing short of total.

Then it dawns on me as he gets close and I can see the thin film of glaze over his eyes: It's entirely possible that Williams doesn't get his own joke! For him, this is a loving homage, not wicked satire. Like Ed Wood, the B-Movie director ("Attack of the Killer Tomatoes") as played by Johnny Depp, he is so committed that he can't see beyond his own vision!

The banality of evil? Perhaps. Is his shallowness so thorough that it resembles depth? Could be. I prefer to think of him as an innocent, like Cayleigh.

As his head bobs happily to his own theme song.


What: "The Game Show!" by TheatreNow

When: Through Nov. 3; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (plus Thursday Nov. 1), 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: San Anselmo Playhouse, 27 Kensington Road, San Anselmo

Tickets: $5 to $25

Information: 897-9003 or http://www.theatrenow.org/

Rating: Four out of five stars

Mark Langton can be reached at mark.langton@comcast.net.