Dorian, The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, Lizard, Yo Ho Ho—A Pirate’s Christmas, Pest Control, Insanity. Has any theater company created and staged more world premiere musicals than the NoHo Arts Center Ensemble, and all in the past five years? We’re not talking just world premieres here, but ambitious, big-cast Broadway-style musicals. I somehow doubt that anyone else has a track record to top James J. Mellon and Scott DeTurk’s. No wonder there’s excitement whenever book writer-director Mellon and composer-lyricist DeTurk debut a new show.

With their latest creation, Insanity, the wonder team tackles their most challenging subject matter to date, a manic depressive film director committed to a mental institution by the producer of his latest slasher flick. Not the brightest and bounciest of themes, as the current incarnation of this work-in-progress bears out, but one which provides plenty of opportunities for its cast and design team to do some exciting, memorable work.

The show opens with movie director Zarek Saxton (Kevin Bailey) hard at work shooting a scene involving a bosomy young damsel all alone in a dark house (except for the singing and dancing zombies who surround her). Suddenly, the director cries out “Cut! That was just shit!”, and the action ceases. This is not at all the movie Zarek wants to be making, he proclaims, and he tells Ramsey Hawking (Bob Morrisey), the studio liaison, that he’ll be back tomorrow, and “we’re going to make my movie.  It’s in my contract.”

Next thing you know, Zarek has been committed to a private “boutique asylum” under Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which allows a qualified officer or clinician to “involuntarily confine a person deemed to have a mental disorder that makes them a danger to him or her self, and/or others.” Psychiatrist Megan Goodman (Dana Meller) informs us that Zarek’s hospitalization came as the result of an incident in which the director was found hallucinating while lying in a fetal position buck naked in a ditch and shouting out the name Ovacu.  

Megan is not at all happy to have “that kind of patient.”  If she’d wanted to be around a loony like Zarek, she would have stayed at County.  She’s had enough of this type of man, including her last three boyfriends and her ex-husband. Ramsey informs Megan that not only will Zarek’s hospitalization be good for Zarek, the clinic will benefit from a generous donation for research, and Megan’s boss Dr. Hudson (Tara Lynn Orr) advises her to simply “stay above it all.” 

Zarek soon finds himself surrounded by crazies.  There’s Bible-thumper Peter (Victor Warren), teen goth girl Monica (Cat Davis), opera singer Virginia (understudy Kathryn Percival), suicidal gay boy Raymond (Alex Robert Holmes), movie actor Rex Reynolds (Brad Blaisdell), and Hughie (Arthur Ross), a hefty guy who believes he’s been impregnated by aliens.

As the hours pass, Zarek is visited by sexpot movie star Katelyn Keenan (Sabrina Miller), his movie’s leading lady, who just wants him to get his act together and get back to making their movie.  (If he doesn’t, the studio will invoke the “insanity clause” and replace him like that.)  Another visitor is Zarek’s straight-laced brother Matt (Jonathan Zenz) who informs him, “You’re sick John (Zarek’s real name).  You’ve been sick all your life.”  It’s not just the hallucinogenic plant he ate that put Zarek/John in this state.  He’s suffers from bipolar disorder, and needs to get back on his meds. Zarek, however, has a different plan.

Insanity (with book by director Mellon based on a concept by Larry Russo) seems to be making a case for bipolar support groups as an alternative to drug therapy. This may well be a great topic for a straight drama. It’s not quite as apt subject matter for a musical.  Also, since we never see Zarek in depressed mode, Megan’s argument that drugs are the best treatment is weakened.  Seeing Zarek only in his manic phase, we never see how medication may be the only way to keep Zarek from taking his own life during a severe depression.

Insanity works best as a showcase for its talented cast, particularly Bailey, who follows star turns in Miss Saigon and Jesus Christ Superstar with yet another tour de force performance, the biggest and possibly the best of the bunch.  Colorful, eccentric, self-important, idealistic, ambitious, Bailey’s Zarek is all of these.  (No wonder he chose the Greek word for Sun King as his first name.)  The role also allows the twice Ovation-nominated Bailey to be a hospital-gowned rapper in “Normal”, reveal a funny, ironic side in “You Couldn’t Write This Shit,” and show off those sensational Bailey pipes in “It’s Time For Me To Change The World.”

Meller (the hilariously French chanteuse Chantal in Pest Control) gives a rich, multi-layered performance as Megan, a doctor dealing with her own guilt over a personal tragedy, which she expresses in the beautiful, dramatic soliloquy “What’s It All Mean?”  As studio exec Ramsey, Morrisey gets to display some razzle-dazzle Fosse-esque moves in “The Greater Good.” Miller parodies Hollywood sex kittens to perfection as the entirely full-of-herself Katelyn. Curtis C. is dynamic as always as Ovacu, the Shaman, and look-alike clinic attendant Freddie, whose similarity to Ovacu sends Zarek again and again into his own alternate reality. Orr and Zenz both deliver excellent performances in their more staid, straight-laced roles.

Getting to play a patient in a mental institution virtually guarantees an actor a meaty role, and this is certainly true in Insanity, from Davis’s sexy, angry Monica, to Percival’s larger than life Virginia, to Ross’s alien-impregnated Hughie. As God-is-going-to-get-you Peter, Warren gets his own showcase number (the bluesy “Kill The Devil”) which he nails (and which features an excellent Blaisdell on harmonica).  Holmes is sympathetic as a teen committed by his father for “the disease of homosexuality,” plays a mean guitar, and earns deserved applause for the folk rock tinged “Bad Dreams.”

Composer DeTurk is in jazz/blues mode here, and since neither genre is a particular favorite of mine, I wasn’t able to connect with Insanity’s score as I have with his work in previous NoHo Arts Center original musicals. I did like the show’s spooky underscoring, though, under Bobby Naffarete’s impeccable musical direction. Suzanne Carlton’s choreography also merits a thumbs up.
Since much of Insanity takes place inside Zarek’s hallucinogenic-altered brain, the show provides a perfect opportunity for its crackerjack design team to do absolutely stellar work. Lighting designer Luke Moyer in particular has a field day taking us back and forth between reality and fantasy with many showy effects.  Zenz’s sound design transports us smack dab into Zarek’s drug-altered brain and adds suspense to the slasher movie sequences.  Curtis Jackson’s fabulous costumes run the gamut from Katelyn’s sexy low cut dresses to Zarek’s psycho ward straightjacket. Laura Fine Hawkes striking set design fits the play’s multiple locales to a T.

Ultimately, the most problematic aspect of Insanity is its basic concept.  Since it’s hard to identify with any of the characters, it’s hard to care about what happens to them, and one ends up observing coolly rather than feeling an emotional connection with the show or the people in it.

Though I wish Insanity had moved and touched me more than it did, there is still much to admire and applaud in Mellon and DeTurk’s latest work.

NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
June 28, 2009
                                                                                                   Photos: Michael Lamont

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