Preview: Psycho Beach Party @ The Warehouse PAC
By Perry Tannenbaum
Odd juxtapositions like ketchup and cantaloupe don’t always work on your taste buds. But in comedy, the results can be spectacular. Ranging far beyond the incongruities of The Odd Couple, actor/playwright Charles Busch created a sea of contrasts and hairpin turns for himself, bridging the gap between Gidget and Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho Beach Party.
Combining the sunny surfboard innocence of Gidget with the multiple personalities that marked Marnie, the title character of a Hitchcock thriller, Busch became Chicklet in 1987, tossing flamboyant cross-dressing into the mix. Four years later, Alan Poindexter brought the role to Charlotte at the Pterodactyl Club under the direction of George Brown, a prime reason why the future artistic director of Children’s Theatre took CL’s Actor of the Year honors for 1991.
Fast-forward to 2017 as The Warehouse brings Psycho Beach to Cornelius for a three-week run starting on Friday. The most recent sighting of a Busch lampoon in Charlotte was The Divine Sister in 2013, preceded by Queen City Theatre Company’s Die Mommie Die in 2008. Psycho Beach hasn’t washed ashore anywhere in the Metrolina region since BareBones Theatre Group produced it – for a second consecutive season – in 2005.
Busch pretty much surrendered his enfant terrible status when he crafted a Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, in 2002. In an age when importance is gauged by what’s on people’s tongues and in their tweets, Busch’s trusty Hollywood targets – Gidget, Hitchcock, Psycho, Joan Crawford – have also lost traction.
You have to explain a lot of the once-familiar references to today’s audiences. Same goes for today’s actors. Jesse Pritchard, who takes on the role of Chicklet, admits to a learning curve.
“I was not familiar at all with the play,” he says. “It seemed funny, and so I wanted to try it out. I did have a bit of a brain blast looking into all of the different cultural references that the play portrays, but other than that, it all came over pretty well.”
Chicklet is your basic beachcombing ingénue, innocent and wholesome, hoping to capture the eye of ace surfboarder Kanaka. Embedded within the demure Chicklet is the personality of dominatrix Ann Bowman, whose desires go far beyond The Great Kanaka, all the way to world dominance.
And there’s far more lurking inside of Chicklet, expanding the diva role.
“I don’t even think I know all her personalities yet,” Pritchard confides. “Tylene is a bit of a stretch, a strong black woman in a loving relationship. She may be the biggest stretch because it’s hard for me to embody her truthfully. Doctor Rose Mayer is like the mom of the group. The accent is a bit much, but I feel like I’ve made headway with her. Steve is also fun, the male model.”
Behind all this pathology? That’s where Joan Crawford gets layered on, channeled into Chicklet’s harpy mother, Mrs. Forrest. Two divas will dominate Warehouse’s diminutive storefront stage, with Mara Rosenberg taking on the Mommie Dearest allusions.
Presiding over the auditions, director Vito Abate liked Pritchard’s stage presence and his ability to capture Chicklet’s girlish innocence. But of course, the comedy needs to go nuclear.
“I was fortunate enough to have Mara and Jesse audition together,” Abate reveals, “and there were instant fireworks and a connection between them. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mara before, as an actor and director. I knew she would be good fit for the role. She captured the passive-aggressive nature of Mrs. Forrest, and I knew she’d enjoy taking on the different ages and aspects of the character.”
A mainstay at Theatre Charlotte, where he originated the Just Do It series, Abate’s most recent wallow in trashiness came when he directed Sordid Lives at Spirit Square last fall. That production featured Ann Walker as LaVonda, reprising the role she played onscreen and in the TV series.
Both of those stages dwarf the storefront in Cornelius where Abate will be bringing his Beach. That suits him fine.
“The intimacy of the Warehouse really lends itself to the fluid nature of this show,” Abate insists. “Every time I see a production in this space, I have a sense of being part of something quite special happening between the actors and the audience, and it’s a unique theatre experience. The title of the play strongly suggests a party and that’s exactly what we plan on delivering!”
Abate got a taste of that intimacy as a performer when he appeared in Fuddy Meers three years ago. In the eight-year history of Warehouse Performing Arts Center, Fuddy Meers, along with Wonder of the World and Mr. Marmalade, has been as edgy as it gets. Red, Sylvia, Road to Mecca, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf are the more customary style of wares at 9216-A Westmoreland Road.
Boomer nostalgia and the silly summer season may prove that the time – and the tide – are right for bringing the smuttiness and perversion of Psycho Beach to Cornelius. America has evolved so much in the 30 years since Busch introduced Chicklet & Co. that’s it’s likely politically incorrect to call anything in Psycho Beach smutty or perverted anymore.
“The first group sale [of tickets] was several weeks ago and it was from a senior community in Davidson!” says Abate. “It’s summertime and in my opinion it’s always time to laugh, and this is a perfect show for both. I’m sure many who come will be fans of the movie, some of Charles Busch, and others just out to see a comedy.”
Pritchard’s Charlotte debut back in February, as the Clybourne Park emissary in A Raisin in the Sun, didn’t exactly give him the chance to show off his comedic talents. But he feels like Chicklet is nearer to his wheelhouse than Karl Lindner. Down at Winthrop University, where he earned his Performing Arts degree, Pritchard did some cross-dressing as the sidekick in Leading Ladies, and he logged additional comic turns at Rock Hill Community Theatre, including Hillbilly Hankerin’.
He takes direction well, according to Abate. But there’s a reason for that: “Vito definitely has a vision and a keen eye to detail,” says Pritchard, “and so I’m working to make it just as he sees it.”
Abate has been very satisfied with his cast as opening night approaches, and he’s confident that his dueling divas will shine brighter afterwards. “I expect their chemistry to grow during the course of the run, with a mix of typical teenage mother-daughter relationship stuff with some severe psychological and behavioral problems thrown in.”