Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles!
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 15, 2008
It has been a very long time since I've had as much fun at a musical as I had at Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles! I was also unexpectedly touched. And I was thrilled by the can-do activist energy of this show, which in many ways is a throwback to the (seemingly lost) genre of 1960s protest theatre.
So how can one 80-minute musical comedy succeed at being so many different things? Know-how, for starters: the creators of this remarkable new show are Uke Jackson (book and lyrics), who, under his birth name of Stephen DiLauro, has written poetry and stories including the River Tales project for public radio, and Terry Waldo (music and music direction), accomplished historian and practitioner of ragtime and protege of Eubie Blake. Waldo plays piano at every performance of Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles!, and he and percussionist John Gill (who has played with Turk Murphy and Woody Allen) create a thrilling sound that is worth at least the price of admission just to hear and appreciate.
These veteran artists are joined by a cast of ten young performers who have energy and talent to spare, including leading players Andrew Guilarte, Meg Cavanaugh, Lindsay Foreman, and John Forkner, who act and sing and frequently accompany themselves on the ukulele with sublime style, and a chorus comprising Mia Breaux, Tammy Carrasco, Jenna Fakhoury, Kristen Lewis, Guy Lockard, and Dustin Flores, the latter two of whom come close to stopping the show with a full-voiced ballad and a couple of tap solos, respectively.
But there's more than just talent on display here. What makes Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles! work is its passion. Jackson and his collaborators (including, notably, director Victor Maog, whose realization of this piece on stage at TNC in a modest but utterly deft production is outstanding) have something important they want to tell us. And they tell it with such compelling simplicity that we can't help but listen and, perhaps, become enlightened and enlarged for the telling.
The show takes place nearly a hundred years in the future, in a not-so-brave new world where the entire globe is controlled by a pharmaceuticals mega-corporation. Most of the pleasures we take for granted now, such as sex and music, are illegal; the populace exists in medicated placidity, fed drugs by their Big Brother-ish government. Jackson and Maog set up this conceit with wit and economy, so that we instantly understand that this is a cautionary tale, but one with at least a morsel of hope contained within it.
That hope takes the form of three young friends, Julie (Cavanaugh), Liz (Foreman), and Max (Forkner), who secretly meet to play the ukulele together in an abandoned building. (They choose the uke because it's small and lightweight and easy to hide.) One day, a mysterious stranger (Guilarte) appears, promising them a chance to play their music in the only legally sanctioned way—as one of the "Top Ten," a government-sponsored elite who create and perform all of the world's songs. The trio eventually decide to follow his advice, which involves time spent in a place called "Ukuleleland" and ultimately to the hoped-for audition. Soon the lure of success and fortune threatens to derail them from their idealistic plans. Or will it...?
The plot effectively reminds us of the need to be true to ourselves and to question any kind of arbitrary authority, without ever feeling polemical or hackneyed and certainly without resorting to either irony or scare tactics. The activist spirit of Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles! is strong and authentic, yet it is very gentle.
The eclectic, lively, simple tunes that Waldo has created here, along with the sometimes pointed, sometimes poetic, always honest lyrics by Jackson, are charming and infectious. (You can hear the show's signature song, "Time to Fly," performed by Cavanaugh, Foreman, and Forkner, on this nytheatrecast—about 16 minutes in.) And the sentiments sometimes catch you by surprise; I know I found myself unexpectedly and deeply moved by the sheer good-natured exuberance of this show—you forget how much you miss unalloyed and unadulterated innocence and high-spirited fun.
Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles! has very little sex in it, and it wants to rid us all of our drug habits, especially the legal ones. What's left in the formula are the ukuleles. The sound of them being strummed by these three rebel musicians is a joyful noise indeed.