It’s a good thing Rick Batalla was watching a rerun of Baretta during a phone conversation two years ago, rather than, say, a tampon commercial. Otherwise, it’s possible that instead of a musical skewering of the Robert Blake debacle, we’d have a show called Aunt Flo . . . the Musical.
Instead, there is Blake . . . da Musical, which began as a lark, resulted in an award-winning cultish musical birthed in Garden Grove, and is on the verge of the first off-Broadway production in the 11-year history of the Grove Theater Center. And it all started as a dare, albeit one that Batalla gave to himself.
Orange County audiences know Batalla best as the mega-talented Latin guy who graced the stage in some of the Troubadour Theater Company’s earliest offerings. But after several Troubadour stints, Batalla began wondering “what I could do on my own.” So when Troubadour big kahuna Matt Walker asked him in 2003 to participate in the next Troubadour skewering, Batalla told him he was working on something new. One problem: he wasn’t. But while talking to Walker, Blake happened to glance at an old telecast of Baretta starring, of course, Blake, who was on trial at the time.
“He asked me what I was working on,” Batalla said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m kind of working on this thing about Robert Blake.’ He said, ‘Great.’” He’d pulled the idea “out of my ass,” but Batalla knew the instant he got off the phone he had to do it. “Once I say I’m going to do something, I do it. That’s just the way I am,” Batalla said in a phone interview.
The hook he found after researching Blake’s life surprised nearly everyone—even members of Blake’s original defense team, who saw the show in its Garden Grove workshop earlier this year and in its triumphant Burbank run that netted it a 2005 Ovation Award for best world premiere musical.
“It’s a love story,” said Batalla. “I tried very hard to stay away from taking a side as to whether he killed [his wife], or had someone do it, or whether he was guilty, and just focused on the idea of whether these two people really could have loved each other.”
Batalla, who wrote the music for Blake with folk satirist Henry Phillips, admits there is little factual ground to suppose that Blake’s marriage was anything but manipulation and convenience. But in his re-imagining of pop culture, and his turning of a twisted tale of two very fucked-up people into a soiled love story, he’s succeeded not only in creating a wickedly funny show about the underbelly of Hollywood myth and celebrity; he’s also managed to turn a small slice of musical theater into authentic tragedy.
The retooled, full-length version of Blake . . . da Musical returns to Orange County twice this month, for what could be audiences’ last chance to see the show before its off-Broadway run next year. And if there’s any poetic justice, the principal figure will be kicking it in Garden Grove this weekend.
“We were told that, had his civil trial not been going on, Blake would have seen the show in Burbank,” said co-producer Charles Johanson. “But he has a standing invite to see the show whenever he wants to.”
BLAKE . . . DA MUSICAL, GROVE THEATER CENTER, 12852 MAIN ST., GARDEN GROVE, (714) 741-9555. SAT., 8 P.M. THRoUgh DEC. 10. $23-$25.