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Theater Review: "I've Never Been So Happy" At The Kirk Douglas

Tom Dotan |
October 9, 2011 | 2:24 p.m. PDT



Michael Mergen and Liz Cass in "I've Never Been So Happy" Courtesy of Center Group Theater
Michael Mergen and Liz Cass in "I've Never Been So Happy" Courtesy of Center Group Theater

It’s hard to tell when the show begins in “I’ve Never Been So Happy,” a delirious yet canny musical by Austin theater troupe Rude Mechs now running at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City.

Is it in the theater lobby, when the cast, decked out in western wear, greets the incoming audience and enjoins them to check out 10-gallon hats or bric-a-brac aprons for the show’s duration? 

Certainly it doesn’t stop at intermission, when a 20-minute “interactive performance shindig” kicks off and theatergoers can play tongue-in-cheek carnival games. (Full disclosure: this reviewer may have participated in a game wherein the reviewer threw wet toilet paper at the state of Texas to “mess with Texas,” and upon guessing the correct city where the paper landed, may have won a fake mustache that the reviewer may have worn the remainder of the night.)

Any sort of ancillary weirdness at the show’s fringes serves Rude Mech’s master plan, which fits Brecht in a Bolo tie and tells a shaggy dog story about love and loss and the death of the Western Frontier.

Specifically it’s about a “Howdy Doody” Country-Western variety show, where Annabellee (Meg Sullivan) is the show’s co-host along with her father, Brutus (Lowell Bartholomee).

Annabellee feels she’s ready to fly the coop at the musical’s start (“Annabellee’s Dream”) but papa, who rules the studio ranch with all the iron-willed intransigence of the father figure in a melodrama, won’t budge until she gets married. This unravels a yarn that brings along talking dachshunds, a brutal rite-of-passage for a male at a wymyn’s commune, and a cocksure female sheriff who takes her bravado from the pages of Mark Twain.

Although “I’ve Never Been So Happy” bills itself as a world-premiere at the Kirk Douglas, it’s been workshopped in Austin since 2008. Transplanting the Texas show to Southern California adds a different current to proceedings already taking place at arm’s length. The costumes, which have a purposeful rental-shop look, veer toward a hipster fashion that would actually feel quite at home in Culver City. It adds another level of self-awareness to the proceedings, but modern theater is forever a breathing, smirking being.

Brecht looms large over these western plains, and like all these post-modern affairs the attention is more on form than substance. On the whole, the songs, written by Austin composer Peter Stopschinski, aren’t particularly tuneful and the singing in the cast is uneven (an exception is background voice Liz Cass, whose rich operatic mezzo is under-utilized).

There are some standout dramatic pieces, including a drug-fueled sequence at the wymyn’s commune where Julie (Camy Alys) decides to rope her son (E. Jason Liebrecht) to a mountain lion. The thumping, unsettling backbeat mixed with Aly’s piercing wail provides some much-needed tension to the affair; you wish they could have crafted it elsewhere.

A loose, "anything goes" aesthetic allows for many unhinged flights of fancy, the best of which arrives when the mountain lion gets its own number. The effect is a death metal rant done in speaksong with bad grammar (because what is a mountain lion but a giant lolcat) and it could be one of the greatest things ever.

Thematically, “Happy” holds its cards for everyone to see; this is a story about personal freedoms, taming wildness, and the unstoppable tide of urban encroachment on the frontier. But the show has a tough hide of irony that never lets the emotions go deep.

It’s a shame, because although Austin and Los Angeles know their way around insincerity, there is an untapped strand of wildness buried inside both. But somewhere along the trail to making this show, Rude Mechs apparently took a different cutoff. Instead of a singular salient message about modern dichotomy, it ends with free (and totally solid) chili and cornbread for the audience. Andy Kaufmann would approve. A cowboy and girl could do worse on these here discover'd plains.

Reach Tom Dotan here

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