There’s a touch of classic MAD Magazine in the two shows currently running at STAGEStheatre, Orange County’s longest-established storefront theater. Both the musical revue Unexpected Song and the Peanuts riff Dog Sees God take pop-culture reference points and wrench them from their familiar contexts. And while neither quite reaches the humor-in-a-jugular vein satire of the Mort Drucker/Larry Siegel MAD musical skewerings, or the less frequent but equally memorable MAD updatings of Nancy‘s Nancy as a dominatrix or Charlie Brown as a cuckolded househusband, each succeeds in forcing you to look at—and hear—quite recognizable things in far different ways.
The Bob Tully-conceived Unexpected Song takes 20 tunes from some of Broadway’s most enduring shows and tinkers with either their words or their situations. Though most of the songs are taken from canonical Great White Way shows (from Oklahoma! to Camelot), there are others in which you’ll need a B grade or better in Musical Theater Appreciation or I Am Gay (as Tully cheekily opines early on) to pinpoint (for instance, do you really know where the song “Fugue for Tinhorns” is from?).
But while a deep familiarity with all the songs helps, it isn’t always a necessity, particularly in those in which the setting has drastically changed. Without giving away any of the surprises, even if you have ever given actual thought to songs such as “Getting to Know You” from The King and I or Fiddler on the Roof‘s “Do You Love Me,” you’ll never think of them the same way after these decidedly alt updates. Some don’t work as well, such as a pedestrian turn on a song from Grease or whatever is supposed to be going on with pouring Hillary Clinton into the Gypsy blender. But the show skirts brilliance on Cabaret‘s “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which somehow takes a song delivered by salt-of-the-Earth Nazi sympathizers pining for the good-old Aryan days and makes it about America’s changing demographics and the rise of Drumpf.
That’s a definite highlight, as are some of the stripped-down renditions, including “Seasons of Love” from Rent (a finely voiced Bryana Pickford and Daniel Berlin) and “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, about a young woman (Pickford, again) who feels anything but light and charming. Kudos also to pianist Jo Monteleone, Steven Jones, Shannon Page, Emily Price and Tully for their always-high-energy performances. But the lack of production values (can the visuals on the backdrop be any less mundane?) and occasional reliance on not-so-clever gimmicks, such as putting “Time Warp” on the deck of a certain inter-stellar spacecraft, keep the affair from coalescing into a fully satisfying whole.
While Unexpected Song feels a bit lightweight, Bert V. Royal’s Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, his meditation on Peanuts characters as awkward and questioning teenagers, almost feels too weighty. And it’s not just CB’s wrestling with existential angst after the death of his beagle from rabies. There’s also substance abuse, suicide, child molestation, arson, mental illness, homophobia and, the real evil in this play, bullying. An unauthorized parody of characters from the strip, Royal is quick to avoid overt copyright infringement. Here, Schroeder (a thoroughly empathetic Kenyon Meleney) is Beethoven, and Linus is a doobie-smoking muser named Van (a very funny Jose Orozco). But it’s clear who’s who, including Van’s Sister being a pyromaniac Lucy confined to a psych ward and Matt (an over-the-top but still believable Daniel Hunt) as a germaphobic tough guy (the only thing he is repulsed by more is gay men) who used to be known for the pile of dirt that surrounded him.
Director David Campos sensitively guides his talented cast (special kudos to Erica Jackson’s frenetic faux-Lucy and Kelsey Arnold’s turn as CB’s Wiccan-worshipping sister) to mine their inner turmoil and relationships with the other characters. Nicole Lozeau and Michelle Lynn Tymich are perfect stuck-up popular kids doing a horrible job of masking their insecurities, and Jason Francescon as CB may look like a high school linebacker, but he’s still as wishy-washy and pathetically likeable as the real Chuck Brown.
Royal could have easily written this play without any Peanuts tie-in. But then it would have been just another awkward-teenagers-wrestling-with-sexual-identity-and-all-that-other-stuff piece. Not that those concerns are not worth writing about. But sometimes, a bait-and-switch works. People might walk into Dog Sees God thinking they’re going to see some kind of paean or goof on Peanuts, but they’re actually going to be confronted with a very poignant, deeply felt play—with plenty of laughs—that might make them think twice about bullying on any level, whether it’s in a high school hallway or the workplace.
Unexpected Song and Dog Sees God STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonweath, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Unexpected Song, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Dog Sees God, Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Through May 22. $18-$30.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???