Theater review: 'I've Never Been So Happy' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
Rude Mechs, the crazy-as-a-fox performance troupe from Austin, Texas, loves throwing audiences for a loop. So for the benefit of any Rodgers & Hammerstein innocents out there, let’s acknowledge upfront that “I’ve Never Been So Happy,” the company’s new musical at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, could potentially give “Oklahoma!” addicts a stroke with its cowpoke sendup of musical theater conventions.
This freewheeling carnival of a show, which opened Saturday under the zingy direction of Thomas Graves and Lana Lesley, adopts its air of insouciance with a deadpan mask. Why, our wacky friends from the Lone Star State, last seen at the Douglas just a few months ago during RADAR L.A. with the sprightly mockumentary “The Method Gun,” have returned to host a little shindig. What could be more normal than seeing wieners roasting in the theater’s men’s room and the lobby decked out like a country fair for our intermission pleasure?
Thankfully, audience participation isn’t a requirement of this DouglasPlus offering. Theatergoers, however, must be willing to go along with the joke or the mayhem may start to seem raucously dizzying. But for those on the same wacky wavelength as Rude Mechs — and this boldly experimental group has earned its cult following — “I’ve Never Been So Happy” will no doubt possess a cobweb-clearing comic force.
The book of this company-created show, featuring the contributions of Kirk Lynn (book and lyrics) and Peter Stopschinski (music and lyrics), contains a helpful description: “A Western operetta in eleven scenes, including: a mountain lion, a long distance phone call, and a race between equal dachshunds all tied together with a length of good rope.” Let me spare you the acid trip of guessing how the various parts of this “story of star-crossed lovers in the vanishing American West” interlock.
Annabellee (Meg Sullivan), a regular against her will on her tyrannical father’s “Country and Western Comedy Variety Hour” (think “Hee Haw” spliced with “A Prairie Home Companion”), desperately wants to escape her showbiz nightmare and see the world — you know, “London, New York, Culver City.” Jeremy (E. Jason Liebrecht), suffering the consequences of even more audacious parental depravity, has been exiled from his mother’s commune and tied to a mountain lion.
Julie (Cami Alys) explains that she has roped her son to a fierce cat to teach him how to be tough and wild, “respecting the earth and treating all women as if they had claws.” Annabellee’s father, Brutus (Lowell Bartholomee), is such a brute that he feels no compunction to justify his bullying child-rearing practices. A sheriff (Kerri Atwood) is called in after complications ensue, but the task of uniting Annabellee and Jeremy would be impossible without Sigmunda (Jenny Larson) and Sigfried (Paul Soileau), those perky dachshunds whose tendency to affect a stage German accent only makes them more lovable. (Larson and Soileau practically steal the show with their doggie delightfulness.)
Rude Mechs specializes in theatrical collages that are less rarefied than the Wooster Group’s but no less eccentric. (The show gives an approximation of what a musical by the B-52s might be like.) The pop cultural amenities of “I’ve Never Been So Happy,” which include cutesy animation by Miwa Matreyek to go along with the cartoon story line, lure us into a world that is unmistakably warped. Bertolt Brecht elaborated the alienation effect to get us to see our social reality with sharper eyes; Rude Mechs takes a friendlier approach, flashing playground smiles to trick us into entering a distorted dreamscape that sheds oblique light on our cultural frontier.
My score card lists more points for style than substance. I especially admired the layered production design and the score’s chuckling interplay of cabaret, country and western and operatic forms, performed by an onstage orchestra dominated by — what else? — violins. The show’s zany imagination, however, is overtaxed. (Does the mountain lion deserve such a Wagnerian aria?) The commitment of the cast is a thrill, but the shenanigans have dud patches, and the parody can seem aimless and diffuse.
But in an age when musicals are patched together from Hollywood trifles and jukebox castoffs, it seems pointless to criticize “I’ve Never Been So Happy” for lacking substance. It’s no sillier than most Broadway blockbusters, but it sure is a whole lot more original.
Rude Mechs’ “I’ve Never Been So Happy,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends October 23. $20 - 30. (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Photos: Top: (l to r) Paul Soileau, E. Jason Liebrech and Jenny Larson. Middle: Cami Alys