Singing. Dancing. Tits.
It is with this exact tagline that Showgirls! The Musical! raises its curtain at The Kraine Theater in the East Village. On a recent Wednesday, I went and witnessed the debauchery for myself. I can safely say that few other shows are as accurately labeled as this one. With movies-turned-musicals taking the New York theatrical world by storm, it seems something deriving from this particular cinematic gem couldn’t have been far off but ye gods, has it really come to this? Discretionary readers should be warned now that many parts of this article may come across as sexist, but in the interest of doing justice to such a spectacle it’s hard to avoid. Apologies in advance.
Presented by Medium Face Productions, Showgirls! is a musical parody of the infamous 1995 film of the same name. Last year Medium Face productions made its mark on the New York theater scene with Bayside! The UnMusical!, a musical parody of early ’90s nostalgia series Saved By The Bell. Having seen that show, and in need of a new theater fix, I headed back to the Kraine for a second helping of sardonic song and dance. While I can’t say I was especially impressed by Bayside!, the allure of seeing another musical send-up of a notorious pop culture foot note was too tempting to pass up. Sometimes fun pops up in unexpected places unfortunately, this wasn’t always one of them.
My girlfriend understandably balked at the prospect of seeing a show with such gratuitous female nudity, so I was flying solo. I couldn’t say that I blamed her since just watching the movie by myself a few years ago was enough to make me recoil. The film was much maligned for its rampant sexuality, but let’s be clear that there’s sexuality and then there’s outright misogyny — this is something that Showgirls reveled in. The movie all but ruined the once-promising career of Saved By The Bell alumna Elizabeth Berkley and earned a place in the “so bad it’s good” category of lesser cinema. A version of the film was shown on VH1 in a heavily edited form that cut roughly 45 minutes from the original release and drew badly animated underwear on its obviously naked female starlets. Does it get any more ridiculous? I’m a fan of terrible movies, but even for me, Showgirls was pushing the envelope. Still, I had to see if Showgirls! The Musical! could top its source material in sheer unadulterated shamelessness.
Upon arriving, the normally half-full Kraine was packed to the rafters with half-drunk spectators. “Bring on the boobs!” I heard one spectator shout. By the end of the show’s opening number, “Welcome to Las Vegas,” their wish had been fulfilled.
The show’s leading lady, April Kidwell, plays the role of Nomi Malone: a moody, secretive drifter who makes her way to Vegas in the hopes of becoming a — you guessed it — showgirl. “I’m gonna dance!” she proudly declares and dance she does — in various states of undress. Much of the supporting cast follows suit, with roughly half the show’s songs devoted to T & A in one form or another. Most of these numbers seek merely to induce shock value laughs, while others, like “Don’t Lick That Pole,” poke fun at some of the film’s more absurd set pieces. The show did produce genuine laughs when its performers weren’t striving to out-crazy one another with over the top gyrations and actually slowed down to let the dialogue do the work for them. In a show like this, there are ample amounts of crazy to go around and no need to drive a stake further into the heart of sanity.
Many of its performers are legitimately talented and dove headfirst into material that would scare off more demure thespians. The aforementioned April Kidwell tears into the role of Nomi Malone with unbridled enthusiasm. In addition to a credible singing voice and solid dance moves, the actress bears a striking resemblance to her screen counterpart Elizabeth Berkley, which she plays up to maximum effect. The script even throws in a well-timed reference to caffeine pills at one point — which would explain some of her violent outbursts at least. I’m so excited…
Other cast members such as John Elliott, who plays Kyle McLachlan (yes, that is the character’s actual name), Marcus Desion and Israel Vinas also turn in fine work playing multiple roles and making each one of them distinctly entertaining. The problem with Showgirls! isn’t a lack of depth in the talent pool so much as a lack of inspiration in the composition. Granted, when mining material such as Showgirls in the theater, one shouldn’t be expecting Shakespeare. Although one drunk audience did declare that the show was “better than Shakespeare,” but we’ll let posterity decide that.
Showgirls too often reveled in the trashiness of its predecessor rather than pointing out its schlock value. While there are some moments of insight (a song in Act One points out that the female characters’ brazen sexuality is clearly the work of a horny male screenwriter) these bits are few and far between, as it seems the show’s creators were well aware the audience just wants to see lots and lots of boobs. The musical wisely plays down an appalling rape scene from the film that pushed the work from silly camp to downright offensive territory. The orchestration consists of a bass player, a guitarist and nothing more. While this sparse instrumentation usually works to the show’s advantage, there’s a moment where a percussive dance bit, played only by the bassist slapping the body of their instrument, falls flat. It hardly matters, though, since Nomi and Cristal Connors are nakedly grind on each other through it all, and that’s really what the people paid for, right?
By the time a makeshift “pool” is brought on for another of the film’s moments of infamy (too detailed to go into here) a discernible sense of fatigue settled over the crowd. Feeling a tad unclean, I could’ve gone for a dip in the water but decided to pass after seeing what they did in it. Even the audience members who were hooting and hollering for roughly the first 30 minutes of Act One seemed a bit tired of the endless carnality. Luckily, the show wrapped up in a brisk 90 minutes to an expected standing ovation.
Whether the ovation was earned is debatable. In spite of how this reads, Showgirls! did represent a marked improvement over Bayside! The UnMusical! for its production company, Medium Face. This time around the creators had the benefit of a feature length film to lovingly rip off rather than a half-hour teen sitcom, making the story feel properly filled out. The show also makes good use of the Kraine’s intimate playing space and a talented cast at least keeps the energy high and the audience engaged.
With that said, Showgirls! never quite rises above the bottom-feeding status of its forebearer. Rather than pointing out the materials absurd and sometimes misogynistic nature, the show revels in it and seems all too happy to objectify its cast for the sake of a giddy thrill. Many of the show’s songs also sound all too similar to some well-established pop songs. I swore I heard variations of “We Go Together” from Grease and Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” thrown into the score. Whether this was intentional or not is known only by the show’s creators, but it’s the sort of thing that could limit Showgirls! from hitting the big time and moving up the theatrical ladder.
Still, there is something to be said for a show that makes no secret of what it is. With movies-turned-musicals the current trend of a creatively bankrupt theatrical scene, it’s nice that this one didn’t take itself too seriously or try to pass itself off as high art. Despite the claim of the previously mentioned drunk audience member, this ain’t Shakespeare. Showgirls! The Musical! is a manic ride that will enthrall less discerning theatergoers and scare away those who like their drama a little more down to earth than over the top. It’s not one that I could safely recommend or would rush to see again, but it might just be the sort of thing you have to see to believe — for better or for worse.