As continuing revues, only the Folies Bergère and the Ziegfeld Follies have had longer showbiz runs, but Catastrophic Theatre's annual summer revue, created by Tamarie Cooper (“and friends”), a Houston institution, now celebrates its 20th anniversary. This is a milestone of sorts, but, please, no fireworks. If anything, this current edition, Tamarie's Merry Evening of Mistakes and Regrets, is an epic buzzkill.
These extremely cultist shows come with a built-in audience, ready to scream, laugh and wildly applaud no matter what nonsense is put before them. I have seen most of these entertainments and have usually left the theater happy ever after – especially the early editions (the Sit 'n' Spin version was inspired lunacy, which seemed to have appeared full-born out of Cooper's feverishly loopy imagination). But this one is, perhaps, the worst of the lot, insipid and tired beyond belief. Only Ryan McGettigan's opulent and gaudy Broadway-style nightclub set, with its sumptuous crimson curtain, chevron floor and marquee lights, imbues the show with more showbiz pizzazz than this revue could possibly imagine.
The wear and tear in these annual cabarets is starting to show; the cracks in the facade as apparent as the poster for Sondheim's Follies. Mistakes stumbles on its doddering legs, sputtering through lame penis jokes, third-rate songs and overwrought performances. Was I the only one in the audience who didn't laugh or find this wan satire the least bit witty or satiric? I was hoping for more from this troupe of zanies, who forget themselves every summer and go for broke, as if released from the heavy lifting of deep-dish Maher, Shepherd and Shawn, all playwrights whom the company excelled in during last season as if embedded in its DNA.
These collaborators can do better – have done so much better – but now they're running on fumes long past the sell-buy date. “What shall we do this year for Tamarie's show? How about a lot of blow-job jokes? What a great idea! Then let's have Greg Dean, as dystopian Mortando the Clown, sit on a toilet and sing “Send in the Clowns” with appropriate sound effects.” I can hear them chortling in rehearsals, while they add even more seventh-grade humor to the raunchy mix. If I were the Sondheim estate or the heirs of Harold Arlen (for the “Man That Got Away,” sung to sexting tweets by a tone-deaf Kyle Sturdivant), I'd sue Catastrophic's ass off for how this show mangles the Great American Songbook.
Granted, Sturdivant and Cooper can do practically anything and we'd forgive them, they're that good, but there's a limit to our mercy, and our patience.
Cooper, a Botticelli Lucille Ball with an antique trace of Tallulah Bankhead (that velvet dress, designed by Cooper and Pam Pellegrino, is golden age Hollywood come to life), has stage presence to spare – she might as well carry her own klieg light. Cooper has enough of a star's magnanimity to allow others to shine while she's offstage, except the others can't possibly radiate like she does. Every time she's not onstage, the show implodes. Where is she, we cry, bring her back!
Sturdivant eats up stage space like Pac-Man, while chowing down on any convenient scenery as if it's an hors d'oeuvre. He's the only one who can rival Cooper's star power. When he's onstage, even in the background, you can't stop looking at him. What's he going to do, what's he going to say, how's he going to say it? He's his own show, the theater's fourth wall. He's uniquely his own gaudy parade float and continuously makes this show interesting when there's nothing else to watch.
Trust me, though, there's a lot going on. The frenzy's nonstop. There are video projections, a very good band (Greg Cote, Brett Needham, Kirk Suddreath and Emily Wertanen), raucous dance routines, the sight of Cooper in a tutu or flying out over the audience on a swing in a mouse costume, the requisite Trump put-downs, and a protracted skit with Ronnie Blaine about a cold condom. The loons who prance in the back or dress like toilets or unicorns or balloon-like dicks seem to be having much more fun than we are. It's such a disjointed olio, no one stands out, although Abraham Zeus Zapata makes a lively, if brief, appearance as Mr. Deadpan, wearing — what else — a skillet costume as he drops his soignee bons mots. Oh, and there's an open bar to which everyone is invited while the show's going on. I was too far away to partake, more's the pity. Perhaps this revue is better seen under the influence, for seeing it totally sober is no joy.
No show is ever thrown together haphazardly, but Mistakes has whiffs of desperation, pandering and a hurried creative process. The songs, except the two classics by Arlen and Sondheim, are instantly forgettable, unless you find tunes about dancing penises and ejaculation terribly comic and urbane. When you leave humming the set, something's gone really haywire.
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When you're expected to put on an original musical every summer – and Cooper's extravaganzas are eagerly anticipated – there comes a time when even the best intentions peter out, no matter how beautifully produced, no matter how strenuously performed.
Every summer there's an audience eager to lap this up. Please, Ms. Cooper, we love you. We are not prudes and enjoy a good penis joke as much as you do, but there's got to be something better swirling through your fertile brain that's genuinely witty. The lowest common denominator doesn't become you. Nor us.
Tamarie's Merry Evening of Mistakes and Regrets continues through August 12 at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays at MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. $10 to $75.