Like The Who’s Tommy, Frank Zappa’s 1979 rock opera Joe’s Garage began its life on vinyl. Both rock operas take their titular heroes on a life journey. But while Tommy moved rather quickly from concept album to movie to staged production in London’s West End, it is only now that Joe’s Garage, the cult LP, is getting its first stage adaptation by L.A.’s Open Fist Theatre Company. 


Zappa fans will be in rock and roll heaven, and while theatergoers with more mainstream tastes may not share their enthusiasm, no one will be able to deny the talent on display on stage. 
Co-producer/co-adaptor Michael Franco describes Joe’s Garage as simply the story of a guy who wanted to make music and a government who wanted to deny him that freedom. Since basic American freedoms seems more at risk in 2008 than ever, Zappa’s nearly 30-year-old work is topical indeed. 
Joe’s Garage has a plot that is bizarre to say the least, though it begins straight-forwardly enough. Garage musician Joe is advised by a police counselor to “stick closer to church-oriented social activities,” but Joe’s church girlfriend Mary is more interested in becoming a groupie for rock band “Toad-O” and having sex with the band’s roadies. Abandoned by the boys in the band, Mary enters a wet t-shirt contest, while Joe catches VD either from a fast food employee named Lucille or (as he claims) from a toilet seat. Joe then becomes a disciple of L. Ron Hoover (not a misprint) and his church of Appliantology who instructs him achieve “sexual gratification through the used of machines.” Taking this advice, Joe has sex with a machine named Sy Borg and Sy’s roommate, a “modified Gay-Barb doll.” After destroying Sy with a “golden shower,” Joe ends up in jail where he is repeatedly “plooked” by fellow inmates. (Yes, “plooked” means just what you imagine it might.) By the time Joe gets out of jail, music is illegal, forcing Joe to imagine the notes in his head. Poor Joe ends up working on the assembly line of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen as a muffin-froster. 
Open Fist’s stage adaptation reproduces the entire original two-hour recording live, under co-adaptor Pat Towne’s energetic direction, with possibly the loudest rock sound you’re likely ever to hear in a 99-seat house. Musical director Ross Wright leads the band, and a better bunch of rock musicians won’t be found in any L.A. theater. Still, it is the work of choreographer Jennifer Lettelleir and costume designer Martine Granby that make Joe’s Garage much more than just a concert recreation of the original Zappa LPs. 
In “Catholic Girls,” the boys and girls of the ensemble all wear traditional gray and white uniforms, but that’s about all social conservatives will give thumbs up to here. Joe’s girlfriend Mary pops out from under a priest’s cassock and spits out something white and creamy. An old-fashioned habit-wearing nun raps a girls knuckles with a ruler while Catholic boys and girls have simulated sex on stage, the girls conveniently sporting knee-pads. 
In “Crew Slut” (in which we learn that Mary was “sucking cock” to get a pass to a rock concert), the boys and girls are all in black and executing Lettelleir’s dance moves with admirable precision. “Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt” puts Mary in a “thoroughly soaked, stupid looking white sort of male person’s conservative kind of middle-of-the-road cotton under-garment.” Later, Joe’s question “Why does it hurt when I pee?” is answered by a real live toilet seat (well, actually an actor wearing a toilet-seat costume with a pair of rapacious red lips where the seat cover meets the seat). 
By the time Joe has joined gold-lamé-tuxedoed J. Ron Hoover’s church of Appliantology, his clothing has been reduced to a ruffled yellow apron and nothing else, affording the audience frequent glimpses of his buttocks, and he remains so dressed (or undressed) for the rest of the show.  

Act 2 opens with a character called Bald-Headed John, a yard-long tube of lube, and a bunch of fat-suited prison inmates.  In prison, Joe tells us, a bunch of “executives have plooked the fuck out of me. And there’s still a long time to go before I’ve paid my debt to society.”  Poor Joe. All he “ever really wanted to do was play the guitar.”
Finally out of prison, Joe finds himself surrounded by Stepford husbands and wives who move like robots.  (Kudos again to Lettelleir and Granby for choreography and costumes.) In “He Used To Cut The Grass,” Joe sings that “there’s hardly anything fun to do since they made music illegal,” backed by ensemble members carrying plus-sized dollar bills and empty boxes.  
Joe’s Garage closes with “Crazy Joe” frosting muffins at the muffin factory “because he liked loud music too much,” and the entire cast in yellow aprons (though the ensemble do keep their fannies covered.)

The musicianship of the band (Ian Dahlberg, Daniel Kaminski, Scott Nagatani, Ken Rosser, Kevin Tiernan, Chris Wabich, and Wright), the imagination of the costuming, and the singing/dancing of sensationally talented ensemble are top of the line. The show itself will be a matter of taste. Rockers will love it, Sondheim devotees not so much.  I enjoyed the first act a lot, the appliance-filled second act less so.

As Joe, a vocally strong Jason Paige gets quite a workout as do the entire cast: Tom Burruss (The Union Guy), David Castellani (Father Riley/Buddy Jones), Matt Crabtree (Warren), Nicole Disson, Michael Dunn (The Central Scrutinizer), Crystal Keith, Lettelleir, Pip Lilly, Lindsay Loesel, Maia Madison (Mrs. Borg), Jonny Marlow, Franci Montgomery, Mario Mosely (L. Ron Hoover), Herbert Russell, Laura Sperrazza, Ben Thomas, Glen Anthony Vaughan (Sy Borg), and Becky Wahlstrom (Mary).
Jeff Rack’s imaginative sets and Cricket Sloat’s vivid lighting bring Zappa’s music to visual life as do Sam Saldivar’s projections. Rock concert devotees will feel right at home with Tim Labor’s ear-splitting sound design.  Puppet and physical effects designers Rack and Franco have imaginatively created a robotic flying vehicle/Big Brother of the future who (which?) narrates the action.
Saturday’s audience, which included an outrageous Warren Cuccurullo (Sy Borg on the original album), was filled with wildly cheering Zappa fans, many of whom may never have set foot in a 99-seat theater.  Though theatergoers with more traditional tastes will probably find other productions more to their liking, Joe’s Garage is recommended entertainment for adventurous L.A. rockers.

The NEW Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 27, 2008

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