Actor Ron Megee proves his resilience in ‘Iggy Scrooge’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

He’s at it again.

Ron Megee is a multi-threat theater artist — actor, director, playwright, choreographer, props maker, carpenter — but he just can’t resist the opportunity to change costumes at breakneck speed as he shifts gears from one character to another.

Take a peek in The Kansas City Star archives and you’re likely to see the name “Ron Megee” in close proximity to “double cast” and “multiple roles.”

In the grand tradition of Sir Alec Guinness in “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” Tony Randall in “7 Faces of Dr. Lao” and Peter Sellers in “The Mouse That Roared” and “Dr. Strangelove,” Megee has distinguished himself among local actors as a performer who can play as many as five roles in one show.

This month theatergoers have seen him do it again in “The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge” at the Unicorn Theatre. Director Missy Koonce has a way of stretching Megee like a rubber band. So far he hasn’t snapped.

The show is a caustic retelling of “A Christmas Carol” set to a rock score. In the place of Ebenezer Scrooge is Iggy — a rock star at once childish, selfish, petulant, demanding, irrational, abusive and delusional.

Ron Megee as "Elvis" in "Iggy Scrooge" (Susan Pfanmuller/Kansas City Star)

Matthew Rapport plays Iggy, but Megee plays four roles: Irene, a pseudo-groupie who wants Iggy to lend his name and talent to the cause of mad cow disease awareness; Oscar, an elderly custodian in the concert hall where Iggy is visited by ghosts who urge him to change his ways; the Ghost of Christmas Present in the guise of a caped, jump-suited Elvis; and Sister Bull, a sadomasochistic nun who runs a boarding school.

Everyone in the show plays more than one role except Rapport. But nobody else plays as many as Megee. Most of them also play instruments with the band at various times. Not Megee, whose talents do not include music.

“He’s very, very busy changing clothes,” Koonce said during rehearsals.

Megee appeared in “Iggy” once before, when the Unicorn first staged the show in 1997. In that one he played the Ghost of Christmas Past, aka Buddy Holly, and Freddie, Iggy’s cheerful nephew.

The script specifies which roles should be double- or triple-cast. But Megee said Koonce decided to shake things up by changing the tracks — the succession of roles played by a given actor. The Irene-Sister Bull-Oscar-Elvis track is new.

“I do a lot of shows where I play lots of people,” Megee said. “You’re never bored, not that I get bored in shows. But I’m constantly going. As soon as I step off stage I’m ripping off wigs and tearing clothes off. I’m running.”

“Iggy” features plenty of good performances, but Megee ended up with the juiciest bits. His first flash of brilliance is in a short but vivid appearance as Mother Bull, as Iggy is forced to revisit his childhood years at a boarding school. Mother Bull can’t help beating herself if she thinks she’s guilty of a sin — which she does rather often.

“I love her,” Megee said. “She is one evil woman. And I love that she punishes herself. The great thing with Missy is that she gives the actors such complete freedom in the supporting roles.

“Another great thing Missy does is she always wants the character to be based in truth. Like Oscar. I love him. He’s just this sweet little old man who’s worked at the concert hall forever.”

Megee said his first professional acting gig in Kansas City was in the Coterie Theatre’s 1992 production of “Neverland,” a retelling of “Peter Pan.” He played three roles, including John Darling and an outrageously effeminate pirate named Smee. The director was Jeff Church.

Church and Koonce, Megee said, are the directors who have cast him in multiples most often. His record so far is five roles in the “Sideways Stories From Wayside School” at the Coterie. Koonce directed it.

In “Iggy,” Megee is first seen before the show begins. As Irene, Megee and Erin McGrane (as Margie) occupy two seats in the the theater. They chatter away in character (Megee said they each created elaborate backstories for their minor roles) before the house lights dim and keep talking during Iggy’s initial appearance as he performs onstage with his band.

“We have a blast,” Megee said. “Each night we get to come out and sit in the audience and watch the first five minutes of the show. It’s funny because people don’t know who we are. Some people have asked us to be quiet. One lady thought we were in her seats and turned us in. There’s sort of a pre-show happening.”

For Elvis, Megee did some homework.

“At first I made the mistake of looking at the young Elvis,” Megee said. “But I found this thing online with little clips of thousands of interviews he did. He had become a parody of himself with the lip and the talking almost in a slur. So I combined that with 1968 Elvis so you could understand what I was saying.”

Megee said attendance has been brisk and some performances have been sold out.

“It’s been a great run,” he said. “And in the talk-backs it’s really interesting to hear what people are saying. We had one woman who just didn’t like Christmas at all but finally at the end, after she saw the way Iggy changed, she thought it conveyed it better than traditional versions of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ One Jewish woman said it made her believe in Christmas.”

We may see Megee in multiple roles in the spring when the Coterie stages “James and the Giant Peach.”

“Rumor is I may play two to four roles in that,” he said.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

Blue Man Group: Comedy meets visual spectacle

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Faking spontaneity is a lot tougher than faking sincerity, but Blue Man Group has it down to an art form.

The touring edition of the show that dazzled, amused and tirelessly entertained what appeared to be a near-sellout audience at the Music Hall on opening night Tuesday was a beautiful exercise in the art of illusion. When the blue men began interacting with video images of themselves and invading the audience’s space in a search for “volunteers,” nothing was quite as it seemed.

The three blue-faced performers who command our attention at all times (Kalen Allmandinger, Kirk Massey and Patrick Newton on opening night) are essentially high-end clowns, but they convey the air of strangers in a strange land – like aliens trying to learn the ways of humans. That’s part of what makes the show fun. These performers exhibit considerable charm.

But the skill of the actors is surrounded by spectacle, sophisticated video projections and explosions of color. Created and written by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, the show that began in an off-Broadway theater has now become a machine that functions with breathtaking precision. It showcases refined performing skills and exceptional musicianship and ultimately seeks to send viewers home reeling after a finale in which enormous inflated spheres bounce through the crowd as the blue men spray streams of toilet paper into the crowd.

Blue Man Group at the Music Hall (Susan Pfanmuller/Kansas City Star)

You can find a vigorous debate on the Internet about whether the audience members brought on stage are plants or actual ticket-buyers and I kept an open mind until a sequence late in the performance. A young man was brought onstage, helped into a pair of white disposable painter’s coveralls, fitted with a protective helmet and led into the wings. We then watched a video transmission labeled “live backstage” in which the “volunteer” was doused in blue paint, bound by the feet, hoisted upside down and slammed into a large canvas to create “body art.”

I suppose he could have been the most cooperative audience volunteer in the history of show business, but I have my doubts. Another bit about 30 minutes into the show when “late arrivals” are captured on camera and bathed in a spotlight as they walk down the aisle is apparently a standard part of the show.

But it’s all so well done that you have to give the production extra points for serving up such clever fakery.

Interestingly, for a show that has somehow acquired a bit of an intellectual patina, there’s a notable reactionary spirit at work in much of the humor. In the opening sequence the blue men create “art” by catching marshmallows and some version of paint balls in their mouths and then spraying or regurgitating the material onto canvases.

And in a prolonged scene involving another audience member and a dinner of Twinkie Lights, one of the best jokes of the night occurs when one of the blue men uses a vacuum cleaner to suck Christina out of a copy of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, “Christina’s World.”

On another level, the show is having a field day making fun of consumerism and advertising through mock TV commercials and what might be termed anti-product placement.

In short, the show is anything you need it to be – subversive, satirical, anarchic or anti-intellectual. Just choose one. But it’s something else, too: expansively entertaining.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

Unicorn’s ‘Iggy Scrooge’ rock ’n’ rolls over Dickens

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
At its best, the Unicorn Theatre/UMKC Theatre co-production of “The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge” offers up a brand of inspired lunacy that stamps indelible images on the viewer’s memory.

There is simply no way you’ll be able to forget Matthew McAndrews as the perpetually boyish ghost of Buddy Holly with a zombie twitch or Ron Megee as the polyester-jumpsuited version of Elvis with opaque sunglasses and a gut.

Matt Rapport in "The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge" (Susan Pfanmuller/Kansas City Star)

This rock musical by Larry Larson, Eddie Levi Lee and Edd Key was conceived — and is happily received — as a cynical update of “A Christmas Carol,” an unapologetic antidote to all the syrupy expressions of familial unity and the supposed unmitigated bliss of childhood assaulting consumers at every turn this time of year.

That said, the writers follow the Dickens original fairly closely, and their script tends to run out of comedic gas as the narrative marches on to its predetermined resolution — the “salvation” of a burned-out rock star version of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Director Missy Koonce gets the most out of the material, throwing in amusing references to the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s version of “A Christmas Carol” and allowing her designers to get crazy. Genevieve V. Beller’s costumes are a succession of visual jokes and coordinate nicely with Kerith Parashak’s scenic design, which makes clever use of the Unicorn’s turntable stage.

Matt Rapport plays Iggy, the verbally abusive, narcissistic, drugged-up rock star who is visited in his dressing room by three ghosts. The first is his dead songwriting partner, Bob Marley (Rufus Burns), who appears draped in chains and festooned with warped LPs and scratched-up CDs. He warns Iggy that if he doesn’t clean up his act he, like Marley, will be forced to walk the earth in limbo.

The experience is enough for Iggy to swear off drugs and alcohol for all of two minutes, but the Ghost of Christmas Past in the form of Buddy Holly comes calling and forces him to revisit traumatic experiences from his youth and adolescence. McAndrews repeatedly pops into a dental-flashing facsimile of an 8-by-10 glossy, and Beller has costumed him in Holly’s emblematic white dinner jacket — albeit showing some of the effects of the plane crash that took Holly’s life, including a tattered sleeve, a few blood stains and a little scorched fabric.

Holly takes Iggy back to the Catholic boarding school where he suffered under the sadistic discipline of Sister Bull (Megee, in his first brilliant performance of the evening). And then he is taken back to the annual holiday pig roast and music party hosted by Blind Lemon Fezziwig Thibideau (Dean Vivian). There he sees the young Iggy (Matt Weiss) foolishly leave Belle (Britney McLeod) with the empty pledge that he’ll “send for her.”

Next Iggy is confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Present, who looks a lot like Elvis. Megee isn’t doing an impersonation of the King so much as a sort of impressionistic parody. Megee, tall and angular and outfitted with a prosthetic belly, visually suggests a strange hybrid of some sort, as if we were watching an impersonation performed by a stork.

Elvis allows Iggy to watch his abused backup musician Cratchit (Vivian again) celebrate a humble Christmas dinner with a tofu turkey prepared by his “Aquarian” wife, Rainbow (Erin McGrane). Then they eavesdrop on a holiday party thrown by Iggy’s nephew Freddie (Greg Brostrom) in which Iggy is mocked mercilessly in a party game.

Ultimately, of course, Iggy is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future (Weiss, in a commedia mask and a hooded black cape) and witnesses the desolate fate that awaits him if he doesn’t change his ways.

Rapport is solid as Iggy, getting particularly good mileage from the out-of-control, egomaniacal version early in the show. He’s a good guitarist, although his voice sometimes seems to be searching for the right key. But he anchors a good cast with a strong stage presence.

Megee, as noted, is in rare form in this show, bringing to the stage a sense of humor that is somehow refined and unapologetically broad. The supporting performances are quite good, with Brostrom delivering a memorably quirky quality to Freddie. Kelly Gibson rotates in an out of various roles — Iggy as a boy, Tiny Tina — and her versatility on the violin makes an important musical contribution.

The band members — Tony Bernal on keyboards, Brian Wilson on bass, Julian Goff on drums — perform impeccably, and their sound is fleshed out by members of the cast. Weiss, McAndrews and Burns play guitars, Vivian doubles on guitar and banjo, McGrane plays a ukulele in one scene and Bernal doubles on accordion.

The songs themselves vary in quality, but the most entertaining number in the show is “Christmas Is Rockin,’ ” sung by Elvis. Megee doesn’t have the best singing voice in the world, but he knows how to sell a song. And does he ever.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

After premiering in KC, hip-hop musical ‘Venice’ gets a workout in New York

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

“Venice,” the dystopian hip-hop musical that had its world premiere in 2010 at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is to receive a second workshop at the Public Theater in New York, moving it a bit closer to a full-fledged production on or off Broadway.

A previous workshop performance for an invited audience was staged in August.

KC Rep artistic director Eric Rosen, who co-wrote the book and lyrics for “Venice” with Matt Sax, said a final run-through is set in New York on Dec. 11 for an invited audience of Kansas City Rep donors and supporters, followed by a Dec. 12 performance for supporters and producers associated with the Public Theater.

The Public is a nonprofit company founded in the 1950s by Joseph Papp and since 1967 has been based in the former Astor Library, where it operates several performance venues.

Rosen is directing the workshop, which will have a new cast member: Chris Jackson, who co-starred in “In the Heights,” a Latino hip-hop musical, on Broadway. Jackson plays the central sympathetic figure of Venice Monroe, a military leader who wants peace. Kevin Mambo, another Broadway veteran who played the title role in “Fela,” a musical based on the life of Nigerian music icon Fela Kuti, repeats his performance as the villainous Markos, Monroe’s brother.

Also in the workshop are Rebecca Naomi Jones (“American Idiot”), Claybourne Elder (who starred in the Rep’s production of “Cabaret”); J.D. Goldblatt, who appeared in “Venice” in Kansas City and a subsequent production in Los Angeles; and Angela Polk, another original cast member and a native of Kansas City, Kan.

“We’ve been working with the Public’s artistic staff since April to refine the show, and this is the culmination of eight months of work,” Rosen said from New York. “That was the agreement we made when we all agreed to work with each other, that we would do these two workshops.”

Eric Rosen, left, and Matt Sax

Rosen said that in developing the piece, he and Sax had made quite a few changes to the material, especially in the early part of the show.

“We’ve rewritten the beginning quite a lot,” he said. “I think the first 25 minutes are substantially different music-wise and storytelling-wise. We condensed the first half-hour of the play into a 12-minute prologue. Getting the exposition out of the way was tricky.”

Rosen said he and Sax have, in effect, moved the backstory on stage. The original show took place in the wake of a revolution. Now audiences will see the revolution itself.

“In this version the revolution is the beginning of the play,” he said. “The play used to take place over the course of a year and five days. Now it takes place in five days.”

If all goes well — meaning if the Public signs off on a New York production — the show could open in the fall of 2012, according to Rosen.

“But who knows?” he said.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

Live From New York | ‘Spider-Man’ is vastly entertaining

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: Kansas City Star theater critic Robert Trussell is filing dispatches from Broadway this week.

NEW YORK — Here’s my advice: If you trek to New York and shell out for a ticket to “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” grab a seat in the dress circle.

Sometimes that’s called the mezzanine and sometimes the first balcony. For this show it’s called the Flying Circle for the simple reason that it offers the best view of the truly spectacular flying effects, including the climactic airborne battle between Spidey and the Green Goblin.

The final confrontation was impressive enough for a near-capacity audience to roar its approval Tuesday night at the Foxwoods Theatre. But then this crowd roared its approval for a lot of what went on in this already legendary show.

To put it mildly, I’ve never seen anything like it, in a Broadway house or anywhere else. The show, whose troubled history has been exhaustively documented by the New York press, is a strange hybrid that combines elements of conventional Broadway musicals, theme-park rides and Cirque du Soleil razzle-dazzle.

The creators pursue serious artistic ambitions while dishing up spectacle designed to get the same sort of response if you woke up one morning and saw a mastodon grazing in your back yard. At first glance you wouldn’t believe your eyes but you couldn’t wait to tell your friends about it.

This is not a review, of course. The producers wouldn’t like that.

Actor Patrick Page appeared at Missouri Repertory Theatre in the 1990s.

The show has already set a record for the number of previews (134 as of Tuesday, the night I saw it) and won’t officially open until June. 14. So this is just a series of impressions, a gut reaction, an accounting of what I saw and heard Tuesday at the Foxwoods Theatre after the show was retooled during a three-week hiatus.

“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is the biggest, fattest musical of all time and has found a place in the history books by being the most expensive Broadway musical ever — $65 million and climbing.

But we don’t really need to go over the show’s troubled history — the cast injuries, technical problems and the departure of director Julie Taymor, who helped write the book and developed the piece from its inception. What matters now is what the show is — and what it’s likely to be when it officially opens.

What it is, much to my amazement, is entertaining. Vastly entertaining.

Yes, it’s an example of bloated excess and insists on seeking some sort of meaning in the fantasy adventures of a character created for comic books printed on cheap pulp. But the show in performance answers a question that I’ve heard repeatedly endlessly: How on earth could you spend $65 million on a Broadway musical?

Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano

The answer is simple: By doing things in a theater that nobody in his or her right mind had ever attempted. Like all the flying. Like having maybe a half dozen performers play the title character at different times. Like George Tsypin’s brilliant, forced-perspective scenic design that emulates the art of Marvel comic books. And Eiko Ishioka’s mind-blowing costumes that seem to bring the Sinister Six — Carnage, Electro, Swiss Miss, et al — to life in three dimensions. This is a show with a thousand moving parts.

All of which might suggest that this is a show swallowed up by special effects. But strangely enough, it also happens to be an actor’s show. Reeve Carney, who plays Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) is a charming performer with a terrific rock voice, but the real star of the show is Patrick Page, who seems to be having the time of his life as scientist Norman Osborne, who becomes the Green Goblin.

Page is an accomplished stage actor — he appeared at what was then Missouri Repertory Theatre twice in the 1990s, in “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Deputy” — who chews this show’s formidable scenery with gusto and finesse. It’s tough for any actor to relax into a show as laden with special effects as this one, but Page looks like he belongs there. He has some of the show’s funniest lines, including an aside about the production’s gargantuan cost, and he makes the most of a bit in which the Goblin tries by telephone to get through to the editor of the Daily Bugle only to be frustrated at every turn by a labyrinthine menu.

The show has fun at the expense of the Fourth Estate. Michael Mulheren registers a nice comic performance as Bugle editor J Jonah Jameson, who at every turn is just wrong, wrong, wrong in his assumptions about the biggest story in his life — a super-hero defending his city against a host of super-villains. At one point he even utters the words so often spoken by real newspapers journalists in the age of the internet and the 24/7 news cycle: “We’re dinosaurs!”

Philip Wm. McKinley, a director who worked at Starlight and the New Theatre often in the ’90s, was chosen to take over the show after Taymor’s departure. She now receives credit for the “original direction” and McKinley is identified as a “creative consultant.”

Based on reports and unauthorized reviews by frustrated critics who got tired of waiting for the show to open, it’s my guess that the new “Spider-Man” is a lighter, less pretentious affair than it may have been early on.

The producers brought in playwright/screenwriter/comic-book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to punch up the original book by Taymor and Glenn Berger and McKinley has always demonstrated a shrewd instinct for giving the public what it wants.

The original version included Arachne, a mythological character dreamed up by Taymor to become a competitor with sweet little Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano) for the attentions of Peter Parker. But Arachne (played by T.V. Carpio) has been transformed into a benevolent figure, a sort of guardian spirit who watches over Peter — and whose presence seems largely irrelevant to the narrative.

And then there’s the music. The songs by Bono and The Edge took their knocks from some of the critics who reviewed the show early in previews, but I have to say this score includes some of the most effective songs I’ve ever encountered in a rock musical. There are times when Carney is in full voice that you can close your eyes and easily imagine Bono singing these tunes.

There’s a whole of team of arrangers, orchestrators and music supervisors, of course, and now and then the arrangements threaten to swallow up the songs. And listening to the cast recording, when it eventually becomes available, might not convey just how well the songs work amid all the humor and visual spectacle. But we’ll see.

I can say this: All the music, projections, lighting effects, aerial stunts, trap doors and elevators conspired to create indelible images in this writer’s memory that won’t fade away anytime soon.

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.