This past weekend I had an opportunity to go to Wilmington and see yet another musical being put on by a dear friend’s production company, C’est La Guerre. I’ve actually now got a few friends and acquaintances among the theater crowd up there. This time it was a production of Bukowsical! A musical based on the life of Charles Bukowski.
For those who don’t know, Charles Bukowski was a German born, American author. Bukowski wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels; his work addresses the ordinary lives of poor Americans and the struggles that come with that. He even was a subject of FBI scrutiny thanks to his column, Notes of a Dirty Old Man, in the LA underground newspaper Open City. He’s been called the laureate of American lowlife, and I was warned that this performance was strictly for mature audiences due to it’s raunchy, raucous and profane nature.
This show was being held in the Beam Room at Front Street Brewery in Wilmington, NC. A quick note about Front Street Brewery: I used to like them. I no longer do. They seem to have become overrated and rely on tradition and location more than any real service or good food. I had never even heard of the Beam Room. Apparently it’s their special events space on the top floor. That said, a room with a bar was definitely fitting for this particular story. Plus it meant drinks during the show! Unfortunately I’ve been sick and on medication so I had to stick to Sprite. Although I did consider if a shot of whiskey might help my throat.
However as much as the idea of the space was wonderful, it failed in other ways. First, the distracting chandelier hanging down at floor level into a skylight to the level below, right in the middle of the stage area. However the silver lining to that is that it also provided a gorgeous light source and helped cast a warm glow on the actors from behind. Second, the acoustics were less than stellar. But hey, ya win some, ya lose some. In this case it was more of a win as the room itself had a lovely mix of exposed brick and wood that leant itself well to the show, and it had ample space. Plus did I mention the bar. I hope the production got a cut from the tab, because it was open during the show and people took definite advantage. This show also featured a live band. When during their warm up I heard a rockabilly jazz style version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” I knew I was in for a treat. My dear friend George Domby was the musical director, which can’t have been easy given how many different styles are represented in the score. There is everything from classic Broadway to rock ballads to even a ditty that wouldnt be remiss at a square dancing event. Also, while the band may only consist of a handful of people at times the music comes together in such a way it moves you as much as a full orchestra. George also had a bit in the beginning of the show where he portrayed Bukowski’s dad… while still conducting the band. It was hysterical and drew huge laughs from the crowd.
In fact, the whole show did. This isn’t a surprise when a number in the first act features deceased authors William Faulkner, William S. Burroughs, Sylvia Plath and Tennessee Williams encouraging our titular “hero” to “get down, get dark, get dirty.” While the writing isn’t particularly mind blowing, it’s perfect for escapism and a little bit of naughty humor. But it’s the actors who really sell it. Actors that in a way, includes the audience. The entire show is put on as if it is a preview for a panel of investors, the audience is that panel of investors. So that 4th wall is completely broken, and particularly in this case where if you needed to exit or use the restroom you had to cross the “stage” and therefore became a part of the damn show. Which I almost did just for funsies.
Now, full disclosure, I left at intermission. Not because it was bad, but because I had become extremely ill. I’m so sad and mad I missed the second half. Because I know it was going to be fantastic, everything had been gelling that night. The audience was so into it, the cast was amazing, and the band was on point.
The cast features Brendan Carter as Charles Bukowski, and he does an amazing job. With a voice that doesn’t quite match up with the image, but makes him all the more believable as a guy who would continually get the shaft. However its also a voice that changes as the show progrsses which follows along with the progression of Bukowski’s life and goes to show what an amazing talent Carter has to embody each stage. also have to admit that being able to play such a foul mouthed character must have been great fun. Although I do hope spending so much time inside Bukowski’s head doesn’t have harmful effects.
It also features Jeff Phillips as both Sweet Lady Booze and a television evangelist whose name I’ve already forgotten because that’s how much I pay attention to television evangelists, even fake ones. I last saw Jeff in Chicago at Thalian Hall where he portrayed Billy Flynn. Jeff is a big dude, he’s very tall, and seeing him in drag, and with the very suggestive dance moves, was absolutely hysterical. He also pulled off both roles with an ease that can’t be duplicated. He’s not the only one who had multiple roles, pretty much everyone did except Carter. In addition to various chorus, student, bar patrons, etc. there were juicier roles to get into such as other writers, Hollywood types and the loves of Bukowski’s life. Which were spread out amongst the cast. It was very interesting to see some of them embody different people completely from one scene to the next. Between that and the different styles of music it must have been a real work out mentally and vocally. It was also a work out physically with some very physical choreography. The opening number welcomed us with just the right amount of Broadway flair and a balance of synchronicity that appealed to my OCD. Sweet Lady Booze also had a fantastically choreographed number that managed to be sultry, but also slightly disturbing when you consider she’s representing an inanimate object. I also enjoyed the use of simple props and signs during the numbers to provide more information and interaction.
There was a stand out in Anna Gamel, as expected. Anna had been nominated last year for a Wilmington Theater Award for her role as Lotte Von Elsner in C’est La Guerre’s first production, The Lady in Question. I’ve also seen her in so many other things I’ve lost count. Anna also portrays a cheeky German accented nun as a young Bukowski’s teacher. Leading the class in a song declaring all the ways they hate him, that is filled with tongue in cheek gestures and humor. She also portrays Sylvia Plath, hitting just the right notes with her joke about Easy Off oven cleaner, her earnestness in her advice for the struggling writer, and her “guys gal” persona singing with the boys encouraging Bukowski to embrace the lewd side of life in his writing.
I also can’t forget Bryan Cournoyer as The Founder. Addressing the audience as one of the producers of the musical within a musical it can almost be easy to over look him as a narrator. However he also had multiple roles to play and brought each to life with perfect balance.
Bukowski’s One True Love was portrayed by Katherine Rudeseal. She did a wonderful job in this role. Their meeting at a bar managed to be sweet and their duet “Chaser of My Heart” showcases her amazing voice. It’s also quite an interesting love song, interjected with raw truths just like Bukowski’s work. Her performance during “Love is a Dog From Hell” alongside Anna Gamel and Beth Corvino is spot on and eerily heart wrenching for anyone who has questioned a lover’s fidelity.
Bringing myself back around to the beginning again, in the scenes of a young Bukowski struggling with peers and with his father, I found a bit of heartbreak. So much of the troubles he went through, being bullied for being different, being overly criticized by a father who doesn’t understand, they still happen today. I actually found it difficult to watch the scene in the classroom with the teacher and children ganging up on him, and had to focus on the absurdity of the lyrics in order to not start crying right there. I can only hope that half of the children undergoing this treatment today find the strength to turn it into something lasting and positive the way Charles Bukowski did. Because despite his alcoholic nature he did have the strength to overcome those adversities and persevere in his dreams which is even more apparent during the number “Postal.” In today’s hot debate of gun control that is another number that is chilling and haunting as an examination of our society.
Over all the bare bones staging and props, as well as utilizing the cast in multiple roles not only made sense for the story but also made sense for C’est La Guerre. The cast was extremely well chosen and each had multiple moments to shine. It truly is an ensemble show. If I have any complaints it’s that at times it was hard to hear the lyrics over the music and laughter, and that I didn’t see the second half. Otherwise, I highly suggest catching this show this weekend before it’s gone!