2 NYMF Weekend Hits Likely to Come Back: Would You Believe Blanche DuBois and Matthew McConaughey

By ROB LESTER****Two NYMF shows I bet will be back for extensions are colorful, rich, and inspired by pre-existing characters.  But they couldn’t be more different than each other.  Miss Blanche Tells It All takes a page from Tennessee Williams’s classic A Streetcar Named Desire, Miss Blanche being, of course, the fragile but feisty Blanche DuBois, the Southern belle in that classic drama visiting her sister Stella and her brutish husband Stanley in New Orleans.  Well, we’re still in New Orleans, and it seems to be years later, in some kind of nightclub where a “Miss Blanche” is introduced.  It’s not clear—at first—who, what, how, when, why, or where.  Don’t go looking for Williams’ words or the Blanche you knew or her sister or brother-in-law.  But who IS that taking center stage being introduced as Miss Blanche?  Could it be—?  Use your imagination.  It’s clearly a man.  He is somewhere in between male and female in his appearance, a bit tipsy, more than a bit ruffled, quite a bit troubled, more than a bit bitter.  

His put-upon accompanist, Pete (portrayed by Robert Frost with restraint but unblinking challenge and playing with keyboard with aplomb and suitable stylings) calls the star, named Lee (brilliant Brian Charles Rooney, pictured at left)  to the spotlight, displeased and wary when a bottle of booze is at hand for Lee.  Lee is defiant and not to told “Don’t.”  So, the pianist seems to take perverse pleasure in the fact that the would-be drag artiste came out and suddenly realizes his grand lady’s wig is missing.  The performer touches his head and his face shows his humiliation and confusion.  But, then again, he is still wearing his decidedly male shoes and pants, even though he’s got a flowing robe and some carefully applied and prominent eye make-up that suggests a classic feminine persona.  He stumbles about, sings quite effectively, interrupts himself, defies the controlling pianist’s orders to get his “act” together and instead starts talking about his troubled childhood.  He’d veered towards women’s wear daily.  He’d found a trunk left behind by someone and discovered lady’s fashions, trying them on for size.  Caught by his disapproving father, he was made to feel humiliated.  Poor kid.  

The plot thickens in the 90-minute one-act, with an often languid but still-coiled tempo directed by Gisela Cardenas, with choreography, after a fashion, by Nicole Curio).  More memories spill out, with burdens.  When will YOU figure out who he really is and who the others mentioned are?  Tragic recollections and claustrophobia linger heavily in the air, hot on the skin, burning. Ah, not so far from a Williams world after all, is it?  But what is the pianist’s beef, why does the other musicians (bassist Mark Van Ziegler and drummer Kylie Andrews) not referee or even speak? And why does the whole adversarial relationship between the singer and pianist seem to just get put aside without a true payoff?  The script has its frustrations and limitations, despite an underlying fine concept (Paging a dramaturg for these pages!).  And the original songs and pastiche numbers are diverting and entertaining, in their quaint way, emulating a lost art of veiled charm and intrigue or foggy similarities to songs that came before down a river of memory and melody as parallel universe music hall hallway pseudo-hits.  (Matthew C. Pritchard composed the music, collaborating on lyrics with bookwriter Jason Jacobs, with evocative titles like “Hothouse Flower” and “They Don’t Make Gals Like That No More.”  Numbers can recall such oldies as “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” or “Old Folks at Home.”) 

What keeps us glued to our seats is not so much the pleasant songs or the intrigue of who’s who and where we’re going, but the performer who would present himself as Miss Blanche.  The piece is a showcase for the chameleonlike performer Brian Charles Rooney.  He can seemingly do anything and be anything.  He can sing and look convincingly dramatic as a man, woman, or the vast spectrum in between.  His voice can be lovely and classically feminine without camp, can be delicate or heavy-duty or crackle with fire.  With the flicker of a manicured eyelash or fingernail, he can turn on a dime and change moods, gender, persona, or the temperature in the room by forty degrees.  The miracle man is mesmerizing.  The piece, despite its flaws and shortcomings and untied loose ends, suits him and somehow does not distract from the spell he casts.  He embraces it, inhabits it, owns it, as much as his character possesses and wraps himself up in the still-prize garments in the trunk.  Issues of gender and prejudice and societal attitudes wither and seem irrelevant.  Rooney is everything and anything.  You believe him.  You root for him. You wonder about his character and want to protect the little boy he was.  You want to hear him sing everything and play every role.  And he has a better chance of scoring with them than just about anyone.  Versatility is his flag and he waves it with command.  It’s not quite news to some of us, but it’s solid proof.  The audience belongs to him and to his character.  Still, mystery remains and we don’t know this performer who finally reaches for his dress and wig and make-up case and he hardly knows us.  Yet we reach out and feel kindly.  And he can always depend on the kindness of strangers.             —-

One expects the Faust legend of selling one’s soul to the devil when applied to pop celebrity culture to be a guilty pleasure and, to some extent, a real hoot at its silly freewheeling best.  In this way, Matthew McConaughey Vs. the Devil: An American Myth is what’s expected of it.  It’s funny, it’s bitchy, it’s occasionally vulgar, loopy, daring, predictable as much as it can be surprising, glib, goofy, and good old-fashioned satire and sass.  It’s all those things as it swings back and forth and back and forth and back and forth from fizzy frantic fun to lowbrow lame levity.  The changes in tone somehow are forgivable and almost part of the unpredictable but brave hit-and-miss-but-damn-it-keep-going feeling.  Got that? A “red-blooded” American male meeting the red devil’s seductress female assistant worked entertaining wonders for baseball in another musical, Damn Yankees, so logic tells us another inning like that could allow for another hit that knocks it out of the ball park.  Well, MMcC v. tD isn’t in the same league, to coin a phrase, but has enough going for it in its poking fun and finding folly to entertain us, and that’s what it does as it aims to please. The team is this case is Carrie Morgan as co-bookwriter (with Emilie Landmann) and co-lyricist (with composer Jonathan Quesenberry, who also did the orchestrations).    

The raison d’etre seems to be joyfully picking on actor Matthew McConaughey as a commodity, a guy known for his commercial movies, mostly romantic comedies and formulaic glossy cinema roles requiring him to take off his shirt and be a hunk, as opposed to deeper, more thoughtful acting.  The conceit/explanation about him winning the coveted Academy Award for Texas Buyers Club (the real movie was titled Dallas Buyers Club) is that Matthew (the breezy big lug Wayne Wilcox navigating coolly through the part like he’s surfing), makes a pact with the Devil, via his sexy but snooty vixen employee, Mephistopheles (the dynamic dazzler Lesli Margherita, who makes the part shine beyond its obvious easy targets or crasser corners).  Trying to prevent this from happening is his long-suffering agent, Penny (a likeable and intersting, grounded Jennifer Blood), who may be harboring a crush on him, but is dedicated and perseveres.  Meanwhile, actor Woody Harrelson, his BFF (uber-laidback stoner cat Max Crumm, whose Woody seems to need more plot integration instead of just hanging out for quips and teasing lines about their bromance maybe being a little gay).  Half a dozen other actors work hard in ensemble roles.  Thomas Caruso directs, keeping the action moving, without letting us linger too long in any of the twists and turns to sink into belabored blather.  But here and there a lighter meringue might be what should be whipped into shape, and a few minutes could be trimmed from the long one-act running time of almost 100 minutes.  

The songs match the gleeful jousting and mockery with their brisk, contemporary sound and explosions of ego and angst, tongues firmly in cheek.  And the cast, especially Miss Margherita, relishes the opportunities to strut and slither and crack wise.  Don’t look for sincerity; it’s a foreign language here.  But the score could use more variety and a few more real LOL lyrics.  Sneering is easier than true wit and go-to-the-head-of-class wordplay.  But the devil is in the details.  And this is, for the most part, a devilishly dopey but diverting time.  And that might be paraphrasing some reviews of actual Matthew McC’s movies.  I think this musical will find its audience in future bookings, unless Matthew’s star fades.  But it wouldn’t be so tough to update with the next movie star to have a similar career path.  It could happen.  Personally, I wonder about the untold story of this actor’s youth in Texas, raised by parents who married each other three times, divorcing each other twice in between, and returning each time to the preacher.

See www.nymf.org for news of extensions and later shows in the NYMF series that runs into August.