Photo by Tenaya HillsTry to remember the name of a fabulously troubled, deceased rock & roller, and I doubt Johnny Thunders will be the first that comes to mind. There are scads more famous musicians who've slowly killed themselves with a steady drugs-and-drink diet—and certainly ones whose music made a larger artistic and commercial impact. Playwright William Mittler, clearly a huge fan, tries to rectify this—but SoAlone, Mittler's Thunders musical, never escapes the BehindtheMusicclichs.
I missed SoAlonein its two previous incarnations at Stages, but given the subject, I knew exactly how it would go: young rebel John Anthony Genzale tells Authority Figure—a priest, in this case—to fuck off; he joins the New York Dolls in all their glammy-glam glory; newly minted Johnny Thunders discovers heroin and loose women; inter-band squabbling breaks up the Dolls and his follow-up band, the Heartbreakers; he tries to kick his addictions; he fails. Mittler attempts to spritz up the story's predictability by incorporating large chunks of Thunders' music—whole songs played by a live band. (It's a good idea, since he would likely want his idol to be remembered for his art anyway, instead of his dead-man-walking lifestyle.)
And that's really the best reason to see SoAlone—to hear what's essentially a solid tribute band run through the Dolls/Heartbreakers/Thunders canon, from "Born to Lose" to "Chinese Rocks" to "Personality Crisis" to "Lookin' for a Kiss" to "London Boys" to Thunders' greatest, most poignant song, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory." (But do we reallyhave to endure "Hot Hot Hot," performed to show how far Thunders' Dolls band mate David Johansen (K.C. Mercer), in his Buster Poindexter guise, fell from his gutter-rock origins?)
It's the music that ultimately raises SoAlonefrom the ordinary; some dramatic scenes are so heavy-handed that they border on the laughable, from Thunders' death (on a cross, no less) to an onstage collapse to over-the-top cameos from the likes of Andy Warhol, Sid Vicious (who tells Thunders that he wants "to be just like you"), Malcolm McLaren, Richard Hell and Nancy Spungen. (We'll overlook the script's most glaring inaccuracy—the New York Dolls are, in fact, notin the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.)
Robert Dean Nunez is terrific as Thunders, and he plays a mean guitar to boot, but really, SoAlonecould just as easily be about Kurt, Janis, Jimi, even G.G. Allin. It's a sad saga that's been played out by many others besides Johnny Thunders, and it doubtlessly will again.?
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SO ALONE AT STAGES THEATRE, 400 E. COMMONWEALTH AVE., FULLERTON, (714) 525-4484. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 6 P.M. THROUGH AUG. 13. $16.