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Ho Humalong 

Comic musical delivers songs to remember, but goes on too long

Wednesday, Aug 8 2007
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One of the best ways to judge the quality of a musical is to wait for 24 hours and then see if you can hum any of the songs. It's a simple formula: The greater the number of catchy tunes, the more likely a musical is to succeed. The fortunes of musicals that have premiered in San Francisco in recent years support this hypothesis. Elton John's vampire musical Lestat boasted one memorable tune — "I Want More," sung by the titular prince of darkness' bratty adopted daughter. The rest of the musical, unfortunately, came and went from my thoughts even faster than the show opened and closed on Broadway in 2006. By comparison, I can still whistle several of the songs from the musical version of Legally Blonde, which premiered here earlier this year. "Oh My God, You Guys" and "Is He Gay or European?" are nothing if not inane, yet they're the sort of craftily penned hits that linger with listeners, making us smile during boring office meetings and on the bus journey home from work. The original San Francisco production is currently enjoying a successful run on Broadway and was even nominated for multiple Tony Awards this year.

Insignificant Others, a new homegrown musical by local composer and lyricist L. Jay Kuo, doesn't have the benefit of Broadway stars and gargantuan budgets behind it. The goofy plot, which revolves around five friends from Cleveland in their early 20s who move to San Francisco and endure various romantic mishaps, including two love triangles (one straight, one gay) and an encounter with a pre-op transsexual, feels like an iPod Shuffle version of scenes from Sex in the City, Queer Eye, and Entourage. The entire musical is built on Bay Area clichés, from a scene dedicated to sending up the dronelike lives of tech-industry workers in Silicon Valley to one character's wholehearted embrace of all things organic, cooperatively run, and politically correct.

Yet, despite the unoriginality of the source material, this musical is forged from exceedingly sticky stuff you won't soon forget. Never mind the 24-hour Hum Test. A couple of the best of Kuo's numbers have stuck with me for the past couple of weeks since I first experienced them in preview at the San Francisco Theatre Festival. It's not simply because Kuo knows how to write a catchy tune. He's an astute lyricist capable of bringing the cliché-ridden scenarios — such as the numerous scenes devoted to spoofing Starbucks — to life.

"Beautiful," a desperate lament sung by the bustiest and brassiest of the five Ohio transplants, Margaret, about being surrounded by gorgeous men, 90 percent of whom are either openly gay or gay but just don't know it, is the most memorable of all. The song's vividness stems from its odd marriage of a sweeping, dramatic melody, which, during the refrain, approaches the epic grandeur of a Barbra Streisand torch song, with lyrics that are as boisterous, frank, and irreverent as anything Mel Brooks could have written. Sarah Kathleen Farrell's Margaret thrusts more than her copious bosom out at us when she sings this song against a backdrop of pink light and pirouetting male go-go dancers clad in tight denim. The sassy performer's salty-sweet voice and bouncy presence pump blood into the veins of the fag-hag stereotype.

Other songs taste almost as salty on the lips and tongue. "Gay or Straight" plays on the same joke as the one in Legally Blonde. But Kuo puts a different twist on the problem of trying to ascertain the sexual orientation of an ambiguous male with a jaunty number that compares the domestic habits of homosexual men with their straight counterparts. As ex-Ohian Jordan (Jason Hoover) prowls around the apartment of his desirable co-worker Erik (Justin McKee) after his date has passed out on the couch, we find out about Erik's peculiar, "on the fence" lifestyle. "Count the pairs of shoes," Margaret helpfully advises Jordan over the phone as he delves into Erik's closet. "Uh oh, only two of them," a disappointed Jordan reports back. "But wait, there's better news/ Mamacita, he's got Prada!" Confirms Margaret: "That's the whole gay enchilada!" "What about his DVDs?/ They won't be accidental," Margaret also asks. "There's a pile of action movies/ Wait! There's Beaches and there's Yentl!"

The song "Just Be Careful" is similarly smart. This blithe duet between roommates Jeannine (Erin Diamantides) and Kristen (Lillian Askew) accompanied by a divine trio of cross-dressing backing vocalists in wigs, peacock-blue evening gowns, and matching elbow-length satin gloves successfully manages to weave together more musical influences than can sanely be combined in a single song. Kuo throws slummy, S&M-inspired cabaret, the soulful sound of girl groups like the Supremes, and Leo Delibes-esque classical harmonies into the mix. This hallucinogenic collage makes perfect sense, too — prior to singing their song, Jeannine and Kristen had taken several hits on a large bong.

If only the success of a musical could be determined by the Hum Test alone. While the work shows remarkable promise, Kuo and his collaborators have some distance to go before Insignificant Others stands a chance of gaining significance beyond this short San Francisco run. Some of the issues are relatively minor and could be easy to fix. These include doing away with extraneous scenic elements such as the giant silver pipe that hangs distractingly from the ceiling for no apparent reason, and getting a couple of the female performers to listen more carefully to their tuning, particularly in the close harmony sections.

Others, meanwhile, are more fundamental and would require the services of a good dramaturge to ameliorate. Simply put: The musical is about an hour too long. For every memorable song, there are two bland ones to match. Many of these, such as Erik's sentimental ballad about his childhood, "There's a House" (which gets an unfortunate reprise in the second half), and "Who Would Hate Jesus" (a venomous, gospel-tinged ensemble number about the religious right that has nothing to do with the story at all), could be truncated or excised completely. Kuo is a talented comic songwriter, but his efforts in the romantic ballad department are hackneyed to say the least. And while his gay characters are full-bodied, the straight ones — with the notable exception of fag-hag Margaret — are utterly flimsy. We find ourselves caring about the fates of Margaret, Jordan, Luke, and Erik. But by the second half, the plot involving Jeannine, Kristen, and the mysterious Andrew (Kevin Maldarelli), who likes to spend his free time stalking the produce section at Rainbow Grocery in search of impressionable young women, only intermittently holds our interest. Kuo shows great affinity for exploring the bittersweet side of life as a gay man in San Francisco, but the hetero experience seems to lie largely beyond his artistic imagination.

For these reasons, Insignificant Others feels like a work in progress. Yet there's enough wit and verve in the musical to make me believe in its future. It's not inconceivable that, with some tweaking, audiences in New York might eventually be humming Kuo's melodies on the way to work.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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