Gutter Star: The Paperback Musical
nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
August 21, 2009
Gutter Star is a musical that, frankly, just doesn't deliver on its promises. It's advertised (somewhat disingenuously, I feel) as a "paperback musical." Words like "tawdry" and "trashy" are used right on the front page of the program. You expect a fun, campy ride involving lesbian bars, torrid sex, quirky characters, and noir fatalism. What you get is a featureless 50-minute rush through various cliched "early Hollywood" stereotypes, peppered with conjecture that wouldn't have been that scandalous in 1949 (let alone 2009), and punctuated by bizarrely anachronistic musical numbers that were conducted so slowly that they began to be uncomfortable to listen to.
The score, to a song, relies constantly on latter-day suspended rock chords and generic I-IV-V changes that would sound more in place in the repertoire of a lesser '70s-era piano rocker a la Todd Rundgren and Elton John than a pulpy period piece. There's not a single number that jibes with the script's evocation of the era, which all but begs for torch songs or Bernsteinian jazz. And, unfortunately, the lyrics are uniformly clumsy—either waiting for the music to catch up, giving entire phrases a plodding sense of syllable-per-whole-note dynamics, or jamming too many syllables into too few notes.
There are seven musical numbers in the show, which as stated above, runs about 50 minutes. That leaves maybe 15-20 minutes of actual book. Plot points whiz by so fast, with no elaboration or nuance other than an occasional "Wait a minute, you're saying" reiteration by another character, that it's an Olympian effort to care about any of the people onstage. The set design makes clever use of (what look like) velcro'ed cardboard details (like microphones and lamps), but the personalities moving the plot forward are as equally two-dimensional.
The plot itself, involving a fading Hollywood starlet who is—much to the studio's chagrin—cast as the lead in a movie about the biblical Ruth, despite being an alcoholic and a closet lesbian, is a clever and intriguing one, with a lot of room for fun and poignancy. And there are a number of talented singers onboard, who could have done much more had they been given more material to work with (and who also, I might add, didn't need to be miked anywhere near as much as they were).
I would encourage the show's production team to really focus their efforts on rooting their tale in honesty and legitimacy, not on superficialities and an effort to show us "camp." The camp will come—and we will come along with it—if the primary energy is invested into telling a tale about real, conflicted people and the tawdry choices they just happen to make. Remember, it was called "pulp" because the cheap paper they used to print those magazines was extra thick: that means there's a lot more you can sink your teeth into.
A disclaimer: the performance I attended was their second show in a row that evening, and included an understudy in the ensemble. Putting up a show is a titanic exertion, especially on the independent level, and respect must be paid, no matter the success or personal enjoyability of the outcome. I take my hat off to the producers of Gutter Star for getting their show up in the first place, and I hope that at the end of this production's run, they feel, at the very least, as last night's understudy must have felt as he took his well-deserved bow: exhausted, relieved to have made it through, and knowing what needs to be done in order to make the next one better.