I thought that telling actor Peter Lorre's tragically twisted life story in a punk rock musical was a great idea. Sitting in the audience on opening night, it was clear that the show's creators also thought it was a great idea. And after the performance, I remain hopeful they will someday get around to fleshing out that idea.
Regrettably, if I were permitted to grade it a different way, I'd give this an incomplete.
As it stands, Bad Ideas is in its precocious adolescence — it's got its moments, but right now, it doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up. It comes off as a boisterous, punk(ish) vaudeville variety show that has a puppy dog's charm and energy. But it's all over the place, lacking a cohesive, un-muddied identity.
The evening starts promisingly enough.
While eager Gen X'ers begin cramming the foot of the stage, ushers hand out aural prophylactics in the form of ear plugs to everyone else. Screens above the proscenium play snippets from Fritz Lang's 1931 film M. But the movie unfolds backward — rewinding itself — as if this fateful celluloid which would make Peter Lorre famous and yet forever typecast him as a weaselly villain could somehow be undone.
Below this projection, a white cloth extends the full length of the stage. Suddenly, words appear on it, spray painted by shadow figures on the other side. "Riot!" in bright red. "Kill" and "Make out" in black. Red, black, white: the color scheme of National Socialism.
A pair of silhouettes dance in close embrace to the circus-like music being played behind this canvas barrier. Then the music changes course, steers straight into Punkistan. The cloth is ripped away and the musicians stand brightly revealed — in smart, black evening attire. As loud and hard as they are playing, these are not punks violating their instruments in front of a mosh pit. This band is tight and demonstrably talented. Cabaret punk! This is going to get interesting!
But then, it doesn't really.
The multimedia touches add no great value to the show. The movie clips are just that, and the rest is little more than real time YouTube video that smacks of those poorly lit cover tune vids shot in some wanker's bedroom.
Most of the music was not especially memorable — or punk, for that matter. A good deal of the score could have slipped right into any contemporary Broadway musical.
However, intermittent audio problems aside (sometimes you just can't catch a break; it happens to everyone), the vocals, and the song's lyrics along with them, are defiantly indiscernible, lost in a pitched battle against the instrumental mix. Is this punk cred asserting itself?
One overheard post-show comment went like this: "It's all about these bad ideas — Nazi Germany, typecasting, bad parenting, addiction. It's all in the lyrics. The words matter, you know. Of course, I read the lyrics."
That's right. Ushers offered a sheet with all the lyrics along with the ear plugs.
Irksome. Forget that. I shouldn't have to read the libretto during the performance unless I've been shanghaied into one of those interminable German operas in which case, yes, I've got plenty of time on my hands. Point is, if the libretto matters, please ensure we can decipher the vocals.
One thing Bad Ideas does very well is convey a certain spirit in subtext. Start to finish, it has a convoluted romance with Weimar Germany's unhinged decadence. (In this, it is perhaps channeling the musical Cabaret.) If that subtext came across as actual context, Bad Ideas might achieve a lot more distinguishing traction.
Even though this show misfires, I would not have traded my seat for one in any other theater on Wednesday night for two compelling reasons: Jack Terricloth and Sandra Malak.
Terricloth could be Joel Grey's replacement as Emcee at the Kit Kat Club without breaking a sweat. He's already got the eyeliner and mascara. Add a little rouge to the resume and he could be peeling Broadway audiences off the walls. He's that good.
For her part, Malak appears destined for musical theater accolades. She has presence, personality, focus, and a great singing voice. Onstage, your eyes are drawn to her. And her degree from Berklee College of Music has paid off handsomely.
That said, consider plunking down your 32 bucks just for the bragging rights of having seen these two before they starred in the roles that launched them to enduring fame.
You'll be glad you did.