Story: Writer Charles Bukowski (1920-94) lived most of his life in Los Angeles, and derived inspiration for many of his works from the City of Angels. He wrote during the same period as many of the Beat Generation writers, including poet Allen Ginsberg and novelists Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
Bukowski authored thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, six novels, non-fiction books and even the screenplay for the semi-autobiographical 1987 film, Barfly. He wrote about the act of writing, work, alcohol and a steady stream of women who hooked up with him during his gritty, dark life. The musical Bukowsical takes a tuneful look at this Beat generation artist in a way that the surly, alcoholic Bukowski may have written had he ventured into musical theater.
Highlights: Reading about Bukowski reveals two remarkable facts: That he lived to age 73 and that he didn’t die of cirrhosis of the liver. Bukowski lived on the outskirts of civilized society, the anti-Mad Men, funneling his intensity and his energies into his dark and drastic literature. Apparently he was compelled to write because the typewriter (Jones Typewriter is given special thanks in the New Line program) was there, even if financial success wasn’t.
Bukowski was known for his vulgarity and the explicit adult content of his work, something that writers/lyricists Spencer Green and Gary Stockdale faithfully follow in this one-act, 90-minute piece that won the award for Outstanding Musical at the New York Fringe Festival in 2007.
New Line’s production is the first since that effort and is one that truly lives up to the company’s moniker of “the bad boy of musical theatre.” It’s offensive to some by its very nature, crude, rude and lewd and filthy to the core. It’s definitely not family material and absolutely full of mirth and mayhem in equal doses. New Line artistic director Scott Miller and his notably energetic and fun-loving troupe make Bukowsical an evening you won’t soon forget and may actually enjoy quite a bit.
Other Info: In contrast to its book's incessant assault on propriety, Bukowsical features music by composer Stockdale that is traditional pop Americana. Number after number is humorous and affecting, showcasing the substantial talents of all eight of Miller’s savvy cast. Of course, integral to the success of the production is the powerful, persuasive interpretation of the self-destructive artist by New Line veteran Zachary Allen Farmer.
Whether he’s in the ensemble or front and center of the action, as he is here, Farmer brings an accomplished professionalism to his interpretations. As the title character in Bukowsical, he plays Bukowski as a self-centered jerk, but one who shows us how his cruel childhood and fitful depression helped mold an adult driven to such extremes. Whether leading the wry number, The Derelict Trail, or the ballad, Chaser of My Heart, with his ‘One True Love’ (Kimi Short), Farmer is a knowledgeable guide on this journey through Bukowski’s private hell.
Short is convincing as the boozy but sad barfly who supports Bukowski on his crazed adventures until their relationship ends with him focusing on the world’s injustice to him rather than any genuine compassion for her.
There’s delightful work by Marcy Weigert, dressed up wackily by clever costume designer Amy Kelly as Sweet Lady Booze on the amusing number, Take Me, and by Chrissy Young as the youthful Bukowski’s caustic teacher, who leads a contingent of cruel kids lambasting Charles on Art Is Pain, which concludes with a belt-thrashing by his abusive father.
That nasty man is etched by Joel Hackbarth, who also serves ably as our narrator as well as playwright Tennessee Williams in the uproarious bit, Get Dirty, in which the tipsy Williams, cigar-puffing William Faulkner (Nicholas Kelly), daffy Burroughs (Christopher Strawhun) and largely ignored Sylvia Plath (Young), tutor Bukowski in the cruder necessities of scripting.
Kelly also appears as film director Barbet Schroeder, deciding between notorious actors Sean Penn (Strawhun) and Mickey Rourke (Ryan Foizey) to portray Bukowski in the film Barfly. All of the players are put through some entertaining and energetic dance moves created by choreographer Robin Michelle Berger, who makes ample use of the abundant stage.
Scenic designer Scott Schoonover employs a sturdy bar (naturally) before a backdrop emblazoned with ‘Los Angeles,’ amply lit by designer Kenneth Zinkl, Alison Helmer adds amusing props and Kerrie Mondy supplements the action with her sound design.
Miller’s pace is brisk and witty, the action is amusing, the banter is brittle and the music direction by Justin Smolik is perfectly in sync with the performers. Kudos to Smolik conducting himself on piano as well as guitarist D. Mike Bauer, bassist Dave Hall and percussionist Clancy Newell.
Can’t say that I’m a fan of some of the scatological lyrics or Bukowski’s morbid, self-destructive life. New Line’s presentation of Bukowsical, however, neatly captures the musical’s surprisingly engaging blend of sass and sweetness.
Company: New Line Theatre
Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
Dates: June 6, 7, 8, 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $10-$20; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jill Ritter Lindberg