“There’s something more going on here than your usual human remains scattering.”
So says James Cichocki’s Detective Bartles toward the end of the Alleyway musical “Killer Rack,” in a brief moment of calm, before the topless plot bounces and bounds its way to a camp-horror conclusion that will send you laughing into the lobby. “Something more,” indeed.
“Killer Rack” is the world premiere of Alleyway Theatre Executive Director Neal Radice’s successful stage adaptation of the camp/cult movie-musical of the same name, which was filmed in Buffalo and released in 2015. Billed a “Feminist Horror Musical Comedy,” it is riotously funny, passably “musical,” more charmingly grotesque than horrifying, and not even arguably a little bit feminist. It’s also the most straight-up and unmitigated fun audiences will have had at an Alleyway season premiere in quite some time.
. . .Radice has written a very good script, full of winks, puns, sight-gags, non sequiturs, and a healthy scattering of human remains — but also full of real human emotion.
Betty Downer (Emily Yancey), an earnest, flat-chested girl with a rapey boss and a schlub boyfriend named Dutch, seeks a fuller, rounder, more elevated experience of life, and decides to get a boob job. Instead of going to, say, Dr. Samuel Shatkin, she goes to Dr. Libby Niptuck, who is sort of like a Scientologist, if Scientologists read the fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft instead of the fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Instead of the usual silicon, Niptuck augments Betty’s breasts with the spawn of Mamora, some sort of faux-Cthulhic-breast-deity, which is after what all faux-Cthulhic-breast-deities are after: total world domination.
Or maybe the reification of mankind’s devotional-sex drive, sublimated over the years into a widely practiced cult of distorted body images wrought in plastic and pixels, channeled into aesthetic surgery, dog-face filters, and the iPhone X Portrait Mode — now, before the ascendant breasts, become a very real form of willing, bodily, bloody sacrifice.
Or maybe just a good time. This fine point of character motivation isn’t clear.
But no matter: the implants begin to take over Betty’s mind as well as her body — just as she’s begun to fall in love with a sweatervested and virginal Mr. Right (Nathan Andrew Miller as Tim Trite). For color, Radice tosses in a few cheekily undeveloped subplots involving a nurse who loves knives, a cut-rate soothsayer, a French film critic, and a detective duo suffering from ulcer-related complications and the desire to be a dad, respectively.
Emily Yancey’s singing is strong and controlled but entirely absent spinto, gravel, and a belter’s afterburners — which makes hers the perfect voice to lead the show. It would be easy to let Betty Downer become a kind of idiot, but Yancey’s total earnestness, which infuses every line and gesture, manages to ride the rough tides of the play’s ridiculous plot with an even keel. This earnestness is so total that, when her demon breast-babies “take over,” seeking bloody sacrifice, it’s less an act of mind-control than full-body puppetry. With her loose lunatic smile, oculogyric spasms, and pinocchio-arms akimbo, Yancey plays this physical comedy to great effect. Kim Piazza, in a powerful turn as Dr. Niptuck, matches Yancey’s energy and control, down to the last deranged eye-twitch, and grounds her with a chestier mezzo-soprano.
Joey Bucheker also shows his range as both Nurse Candida, larger-than-life Latina and comic foil to Niptuck, as well as Detective Jaymes, who helps to investigate the bloody boob-related murders. In this role he plays the sidekick and straight man to James Cichocki’s hilarious Detective Bartles. Cichocki is three parts Philip Marlowe, two parts Daniel Craig , another two parts Elwood Blues, and one part Bran Stark (Season 7). (The math is complicated, but trust me.) Filming Bucheker and Cichocki in a serialized police procedural could usher in a Fourth Golden Age of Television.
Nathan Andrew Miller has a very fine voice, and he’s believable as Tim Trite, whose bowtie and hand puppets have relegated him to Betty Downer’s friend zone. In an uncorseted play spilling over with catcalls and scores of synonyms for “teat,” Nathan manages to bring real weight to his role, convincing us that he loves Betty for her personality, while at the same time responding naturally to her killer rack. The play’s few moments of successful pathos depend on him. But — because of an unfortunate combination of man and material — Nathan’s two solos, “Inner Beauty” and “It’s A Date,” are the criminally boring parts all the more noticeable in an otherwise rapid comedy. The lyrics are banal and overlong, and Nathan stays rooted to whatever spot the other characters left him in, singing beautifully, without a single boob in sight. At least in this role, Miller — and these songs — can’t hold the stage alone.
“Killer Rack” is the professional debut of Andrew Zuccari, here playing the boyfriend Dutch and two different catcallers — the first like a perverted Drake and Josh-era Josh Peck and the other played like a European comfortable with group sex. His straight-faced and full-throttle exploration of man-boy misogyny is one of the show’s strongest features. At the tender age of 19, his acting is the least sophisticated of the leads — but it also works. His scenes feel like and could compete with the best of “Mad TV.” His timing and delivery show great promise, and I’ll be shocked and disappointed if he doesn’t soon take a turn in a some drama from Miller or Mamet at Irish or Kavinoky.
While bad pit bands can do more damage to a production than even the strongest lead could cover up, any musical without a live band is reduced to a shadow of its potential. The use of recordings exposes Radice’s musical direction and sound as the show’s weak links. The lyrics are often quite sharp and the leads are all strong-enough singers, but the scores are, at best, inoffensive. You will not be humming these melodies as you leave the theatre, which will hinder the production’s chances of success on the road. Some — like the Miller solos — structurally sag. Harmonies, likewise, could use a lift — a problem worsened when ensemble members repeatedly soar into sour notes, curdling the entire effect. The recordings sound tinny and insufficient — and the choice of music for a “nightclub” puts in mind a Korean knock-off of an early Mario Kart game.
But Radice has written a very good script, full of winks, puns, sight-gags, non sequiturs, and a healthy scattering of human remains — but also full of real human emotion. His directing clearly has made the most both of that strong script and his excellent cast.
Toward the end of the show, an elderly gentleman to my right, clad in a white cardigan sweater and his usher’s nametag — “Don” — couldn’t help exclaiming, “There are beasts in those breasts!”
Right you are, Don. Right you are. But the show’s irrepressible spirit doesn’t stop at the bra-less boobs.
Running Time: 2 Hours with one 10 minute intermission.
Advisory: Some Adult Content
“Killer Rack – The Feminist Horror Musical Comedy” runs until October 7, 2017 and is presented at Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo. For more information, click here.