“There was a girl who went to college. She was plain and shy. She was a stranger to love’s passion.  She had a secret admiration for a certain guy, and she was ready for some action. One day she stumbled on a groovy place I’d like to share, where you can do whatever pleases. Ecstasy’s the name and I can take you there.  It’s gonna bring you to your knees-es.”

The singer of the above lyrics is an afro-bewigged woman known only as Black Widow, and the girl she’s singing about is a virginal co-ed named Angel. The “certain guy” is the equally virginal Tom and the “groovy place” she’d like to take us is Ecstasy, which also happens to be the title of a self-billed “groovy 70s musical.”

Is Ecstasy a place, a state of mind, or a fashion statement as its inhabitants’ iridescent purple, green, and orange polyester jumpsuits and matching wigs might suggest? 

I never did figure out the answer to this question, but some terrific performances by a talented cast, choreography by Broadway legend Kay Cole, and psychedelic costumes and wigs make the most of S. Claus’ world premiere musical.

Gina D’Acciaro is Black Widow, and as anyone who saw her Ovation Award-nominated turn in Tales From Tinseltown knows, this gal has the most powerful pipes in L.A.  Angel and Tom are portrayed by petite powerhouse Lisa Marinacci and charismatic L.A. newcomer Meyer DeLeeuw, and both are excellent.

Angel informs Tom that she’s heard of a place called Ecstasy, a whole other world. “If I could take you there with me,” she tells Tom, “I know things would be different between us.” She kisses him and he pulls away.  “Let’s not rush into anything,” says Tom. “I’m supposed to say that, not you,” retorts Angel.  She offers to take him to Ecstasy (“Your mind and your heart will be free”), but Tom is too afraid to follow.

Later, Tom confronts life in “The City,” sung by a man called Roger (Ben Bowen), a hooker named Betty (Dina Buglione), a pusher, a thief, and a pervert.  Roger and his crew proclaim “drugs and thugs and sex for cash, sounds like fun to me.  On Friday there’s a special. Marijuana at half price.”  “Where am I?” wonders Tom. “You’re in Sin City,” replies Betty, and sends him to a club called Boobies. “I’ll meet you there,” she says. “We’ll talk.”

In the bumb-and-grindy “I Like What I Do,” Betty sings about her life in the sex trade: “She moved to the city. She started to charge. She found that her passion was making her wallet grow large.” Tom is a bit taken aback, but Betty is even more excited by this nerdy hunk when she learns that he’s saving himself.

Not long after, Tom meets a man in a gold-lamé jumpsuit who turns out to be an alien (of the outer space kind) named Max (Patrick Hancock). It turns out Max’s spaceship has malfunctioned. Fortunately, Tom is able to repair Max’s vehicle (possibly inspired by having Max’s crotch against his behind during the repair). If there’s any suggestion that homosex may be on the horizon, it’s soon laid to rest when Max informs Tom that he’s signed an oath to go without sex, something which makes alien and earthling partners in celibacy.  A joyous Max sings the bouncy “Friends.”  (“Now I see that there are other stars along the way. I am glad to find a brother and a friend today.”)

Max offers to help Tom locate Angel.

Next to show up is Dr. Morrall (Sean Smith), a preacher man in black, who sings “Moral Minority,” backed by a quintet of hooded priests clad equally in black. “All I see is sex and sinning. But I’m so proud to be part of the moral minority,” he declares self-righteously.

Black Widow returns to sing “Black Widow”: “I’m the black widow. Can I be your bride? When it comes to love, don’t say I haven’t tried.  How can you refuse me?”

Eventually, Tom and Max arrive in Ecstasy, where they are greeted by a winged Loni Anderson look-alike dressed all in white, who leads the entire cast in “Ecstasy (When You Touch Me)”  “You’re in Ecstasy when you touch me,” she belts out. “I’m in Ecstasy when you touch me. And we’re in Ecstasy when you touch me.”

Who exactly is this Queen of Ecstasy?  Could she possibly be someone we’ve met before?  These questions will be answered, but not until after intermission.

As Dr. Morrall, Smith makes good use of the operatic pipes that stood him in good stead during his four and a half years in Phantom At The Opera at the Ahmanson.  Hancock is every bit as delightful here as he was portraying Charlie Brown in Snoopy. Buglione is a sassy Betty with a powerful voice. Assorted purple, green, and orange-jumpsuited residents of Ecstasy, The Musical are portrayed by Bowen, Julie Carrillo (Sherri), Nicci Claspell (Christi), assistant choreographer Sharyn Gabriel (Angie), Joshua McBride (Michael), and Kyle Shepard (Jeff), and they are all first-rate singers and dancers who perform with energy and commitment.

Helming the project is director/choreographer Cole, whose program bio lists over 65 productions she has directed and/or choreographed in L.A., on Broadway, and in London’s West End.  Cole’s performing credits go back to the original Broadway production of Bye, Bye Birdie and she created the role of Maggie in the original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line. How’s that for a résumé? Ecstasy, The Musical benefits enormously from the fun, bouncy, energetic dance steps she’s created for its musical numbers.

Brent Crayon’s musical direction is, as always, impeccable, aided by supertalented live accompanist Alexander Georgakis.  Kurtis Bedford’s set design is basic but effective. Lighting by Matt Richter, Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound design, and wigs and hair design by Diane Martinous are all excellent. Best of all are Susanne Klein’s rainbow-hued costumes in all their 1970s polyester awfulness (the awfulness a description of the era and not of Klein’s design skills).

If up until now, little mention has been made of Ecstasy, The Musical’s book, music, and lyrics by S. Claus, it is because they are the production’s weak element. As the above Act One synopsis may suggest, a more coherent storyline and characters audiences can care about and identify with would make for a far more absorbing experience.  Claus’s melodies and their arrangements are actually rather catchy (especially the title tune), but they have a 1960s sound, which is a decade off for a “groovy new 70s musical.” (Compare them with the music of Genesis, Led Zeppelin, ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, The Doobie Brothers or the disco hits of Donna Summer or The Village People and you’ll hear little resemblance.)  Just as “groovy” is a 1960s term, so does Claus’s bizarre book seem to fit the decade of flower power and psychedelic drugs and not the post-Vietnam culture we think of as “the seventies.”

Ultimately, Ecstasy, The Musical’s entertainment value comes from its performers, its director, and its musical and design participants. It would be wonderful to see them all working with better material. 

Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
June 7, 2009
                                                                                                 Photos: Michael Lamont

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