Remembering Jack Wrangler

Word from New York today is that Jack Wrangler, the gay porn star turned musical theater writer, has died after a struggle with lung disease. He was 62 and his survived by his wife, the singer Margaret Whiting, 84.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Wrangler in late 1992 for the Bay Area Reporter when he was in the Bay Area to try out a musical he had written with composer Bob Haber and lyricist Hal Hackady called The Valentine Touch, which had its premiere at the Willows Theatre in Concord. We met for coffee at the Orbit Room then decided to carry the interview to dinner, so we ended up at the Sausage Factory on Castro Street. It quickly became clear to me that Wrangler, in trademark jeans and flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, wouldn’t mind being recognized, which he was by several fans on the street.

Talking about writing musicals and getting them produced, Wrangler said it was a lot more difficult than making porn. “If I had any idea there was this much work involved, I would never ever have done it,” he told me. “I thought: you write the thing, everyone gets excited and they just do it. Well it doesn’t work that way. It’s millions of dollars and a lot of other junk. Writing a musical is probably one of the toughest things to do in the entertainment industry. I’ve learned so much. I could really write one now.”

In fact, Wrangler did write more shows, including one that went to Broadway. Dream, a revue featuring the songs of Johnny Mercer and with Whiting as its leading lady, ran in 1997.

While Wrangler was a successful porn star, he met Whiting, who was more than 20 years his senior. They married in 1994.

His relationship with Whiting caused consternation among those who prefer people to stick to their labels. But Wrangler never made any excuses.

“I’m gay. I will always be gay,” he told me. “The thing I do when I’m attracted to somebody is: I weigh it against how much it will hurt Margaret. If I’m on the road and something may happen or something may not happen, and if Margaret is liable to be hurt, it ain’t gonna happen. If she isn’t maybe it will. I don’t know.”

Whiting, who is said to be in frail health herself, was the love of Wrangler’s life.

“I’m devoted to Margaret,” he told me in 1992. “I love her with all my heart, but it doesn’t make me straight. Margaret did not fall in love with me as a sexual object. Margaret has had a lot of sexual objects in her life. She’s had four marriages. She’s a very zesty woman who has done well for herself. When we fell in love, it was not based on that. We had a gas of a time together and still do, even more so now.”

Funeral arrangements for Wrangler are pending.

A great way to remember Wrangler is the wonderful documentary Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon. Wrangler’s intelligence and wry sense of humor, both of which were in ample supply during our interview 17 years ago, are more than apparent.

Here’s the trailer:

Review: `Evil Dead: The Musical’

Continues through July 26 at the Campbell Theatre, Martinez

Michael Scott Wells and Alexandra Creighton scare off Candarian demons in Evil Dead: The Musical, a Willows Theatre production at the Campbell Theatre in Martinez. Photos courtesy of Willows Theater.

Singing and bleeding in horror musical
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Adding the words “the musical” to a title is, in some cases, automatically funny. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: The Musical. Mein Kampf: The Musical. Spider-Man: The Musical. (Don’t laugh – that last one is real and coming to Broadway soon.)

So already, Evil Dead: The Musical has a leg up in the laugh department, albeit a dismembered, bloody leg.

Sam Raimi’s early ’80s gore fest splattered across movie and video screens through much of the decade, lending it cult status, spawning two sequels and making a sort-of star of Bruce Campbell and a budding blockbuster director of Raimi (who would go on to direct the Spider-Man franchise).

Whenever the word “cult” is attached to a movie, the musical stage version can’t be far behind. About two years ago, a group of Canadian kids – George Reinblatt (book, lyrics, music), Christopher Bond (music and additional lyrics), Frank Cipolla (music), Melissa Morris (music) and Rob Daleman (music) – decided to camp up the already campy comedy-horror film and turn it into an all-singing, all-dancing zombie fest. The show was a hit in Toronto, had a run off-Broadway and is now back in Toronto.

The musical finally makes it to the Bay Area courtesy of the Willows Theatre Company, who’s producing it in their Campbell Theatre, which is a spiffy cabaret-style space in downtown Martinez. The ironic thing is that years ago, this is the kind of outrageous, sensational show that people would come see in the big, bad city. But now these kinds of shows tend to spring up in the suburbs, and city folk have to make the trek.

Now to the review. In the immortal words of Ash, the hero of Evil Dead: “Yo, she-bitch. Let’s go.”

But wait, before I even get to the actual show, which is fun and amateurish and not as well produced as it should be, I want to commend the Willows for the entire Evil Dead experience. First off, there’s a “splatter zone,” the more expensive first few rows of the theater, where customers get drenched in stage blood (really just pink water, but LOTS of it). You can buy a white T-shirt to wear with the promise that by the end, it will be a red-spattered, customized souvenir tee. You can also buy protective plastic poncho for a buck, but that defeats the purpose of being in the splatter zone, which is almost always sold out. Kids today love their splatter.

Your friendly cocktail waitress will inform you of the special cocktails, most of which have unprintable names and promise to have you on the floor (or thinking this musical is brilliant) in only two shots. You can order meat and cheese trays, nachos and the like, which all contributes to the carnival atmosphere of the show, and that’s just grand.

What’s happening on stage is less grand. Like the movie that inspired it, this musical is meant to be Grade B (or C or D) material that revels in crudeness, silliness and cheap thrills. I get that. And director Jon Tracy’s cast has the requisite exuberance and attitude.

What they don’t have is good music (performed on a tinny, prerecorded soundtrack) or a decent sound system. Complicating the sound issues are the zombie masks the actors wear once they become Candarian demons. The microphones and the full-face masks do not work well together and muddy the sound almost beyond recognition. Any cleverness in the lyrics is mostly obscured. That’s why the show’s mask-free final number, “Blew That Bitch Away,” comes across best — we can hear every word.

Much of the technical attention seems to have been lavished on the gore and the construction of water canons to shoot the spray into the audience. When the spraying isn’t enough, a stagehand (Greg Asdourian), steps out on stage with a powerful water gun and just shoots randomly into the audience. Even those outside the splatter zone are in danger of flying blood.

Full props to Michael Scott Wells, who stars as Ash and channels Bruce Campbell like a pro. He can wield a chainsaw with a severed right hand all while singing and dancing. Top that, Patti LuPone.

In the supporting cast, Corey Lenkner as hillbilly Jake has a great song (“Good Old Reliable Jake,” performed without a mask, by the way), and Lowell Abellon as Ed, sings a woeful number about being a bit-part demon (it’s sort of the “Mr. Cellophane” of the show). Alexandra Creighton also shines as a late-entry love interest for Ash. Her dying ballet, with Ash’s severed hand holding a knife in her back, is priceless.

Clearly the show’s creators were going for something along the lines of The Rocky Horror Show. They even throw in their version of “The Time Warp” called “Do the Necronomicon.” This is no Rocky Horror, but it will do in a pinch.

In case you were wondering, this show is NOT for kids. It has strong language, sex jokes and, of course, gallons of pretend blood. Bring your inner child (or more appropriately, your inner drunk college student), but not your actual child.

Evil Dead: The Musical continues through July 26 at the Campbell Theatre, 636 Ward St., Martinez. Tickets are $30 for the splatter zone, $25 regular. Call 925-798-1300 or visit for information.

In the director’s chair with: Jon Tracy

The cast and crew of SF Playhouse’s Bug. Director Jon Tracy is on the right in the hat.

Ask Jon Tracy what’s bugging him these days, and the answer is easy: Bug.

Tracy is directing the Bay Area premiere of the play, by recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) for SF Playhouse. The production begins previews May 7, opens May 10 and continues through June 14 at the downtown San Francisco theater.

Famously creepy and skin-crawly, Bug is a tale of paranoia – a man and a woman in a grimy, slimy hotel room suffer delusions of a bug infestation brought about by a nefarious government conspiracy…or mental illness…or actual bugs. A movie was made of the play in 2006 directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, the star of the original Chicago production of the play. The movie, which some hailed and others reviled, did not impress Tracy, who was a fan of the play.

“Seeing that movie only made me want to direct the play more,” he says. “When you see a version of something you love that you don’t care for, that didn’t grab the story correctly, you want to fix it.”

What appeals to Tracy about the play is that there’s more to it than just the gore and horror it’s famous for.

“It’s an unbelievably wonderful look at a love story,” Tracy says.

The lovers in Tracy’s production are Gabe Marin as Peter, the AWOL Gulf War veteran who thinks he may have been subjected to experiments by the military, and Susi Damilano as Agnes, a cocktail waitress with a propensity for partying.

“What we’re finding in rehearsals is that Letts has a distinctive rhythm and sensibility,” Tracy says. “We’re working with two different rhythms in a farce staging that includes some really interesting rules to live by. There is a wit that needs to come out of it. There’s so much subtext. In most contemporary plays we don’t really say anything we mean, but what we mean is down there somewhere. Letts is an unbelievable wordsmith. He’s not afraid to punch you twice before you realize you got punched the first time. The play is beyond clever. The emotional journey is mathematically precise and goes well beyond the shock value he has become known for.”

Where the movie went wrong, in Tracy’s opinion, was in missing the natural comedy of the piece and messing up the ending.

“Friedkin misstated the end,” Tracy says. “We weren’t along for the ride. It was all screaming people, spinning camera and aluminum foil covering everything. Any amount of belief was blown out and it became silly. The central relationship wasn’t the love story I’ve come to see as so important to the play.”

SF Playhouse is just about the perfect space for a play like Bug that trades on paranoia and claustrophobia. Set designer Bill English (also SF Playhouse’s artistic director) has created a seedy motel set that Tracy says is “a character in and of itself.” The audience, for good or ill, is going to feel trapped in that hotel room and the paranoia that’s building around something that may or may not actually be happening.

That’s exactly how Tracy likes it.

“It’s time for theater to get back to holding the audience accountable,” he says. “That happens less in our modern theaters. We like to tell them what to do and what to think. Here, let me turn my imagination off. That’s counterproductive to why we started doing this in the first place.”

Why Tracy, a Vallejo native who now lives in Oakland, started doing this theater thing was simple: he thought it would be a cool way to meet girls. These days, though, he has a different philosophy.

“My thought is that we live today in an unbelievably beautiful, giving world that masquerades as a horrible, treacherous place,” he says. “If you’re looking for the good in it, it’s not going to appear. It’s about realigning ourselves so we can see what’s been there the entire time, and embrace what’s been there the entire time. I have to believe that theater is that bridge. For me, that’s what I believe we do. We call ourselves artists, but that’s the worst possible title for us. Instead, we need to look at the fact that we are like every other person pursuing their craft for the betterment of the community. By that definition, the plumber or the accountant is an artist. The problem is, that in the trappings of life – the mortgage, three kids and so on – we lose our art. That’s why we commune in the theater or go to a museum – to find a little of ourselves again and maybe to see that everything is actually here to help.”

Plucked out of the Solano College theater program by George Maguire who suggested directing over acting, Tracy says he has been lucky to have great people shepherd him along. Joy Carlin (right, with Tracy) and the Carlin family have been “incredible influences,” and now he says he has been embraced by co-founders English and Damilano at SF Playhouse.

“I’m a huge, huge, unbelievably huge believer in the people I work with,” Tracy says. “I know I will always learn more than I dish out. I know I’m lucky to be in the room.”

So far this year, Tracy’s directorial plate has been full of darkness – Macbeth, The Diviners and Bug – and now it’s time to lighten up. His next project, which will open Friday, June 13, in the Willows Theatre Company’s Martinez theater, is Evil Dead: The Musical.

“I listened to the music and thought it was raunchy and silly and fun,” Tracy says. “I grew up with the Sam Raimi films and just couldn’t say no to this one.”

SF Playhouse’s Bug runs from May 7 through June 14. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.

`Evil Dead’ sings!

Now here’s something that might actually get my lazy butt to finally trek to Martinez and check out the Willows Theatre’s fancy new cabaret theater (the home of every Nunsense show known to God and mankind).

Willows is producing the cult classic EVIL DEAD: The Musical at the Campbell Theatre, 636 Ward Street in Martinez, CA, June 13-July 26, 2008. Billed as “disarmingly funny” and the musical that “would kill you to miss it,” EVIL DEAD is part rock opera, part Alice Cooper, part Rocky Horror…and totally for the kid in all of us who dares to be scared.

If, like me, you’re an EVIL DEAD novice, here’s the gist: Five college students break into an abandoned cabin in the woods and unleash evil spirits, turn into Candarian Demons…and sing show tunes!

Sam Raimi’s classic 80’s horror films are brought to … er … life. As musical mayhem descends on this sleepover in the woods, “camp” takes on a whole new meaning with numbers like “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons,” “What the F*** Was That?” and “Do the Necronomicon.” EVIL DEAD is one of the few musicals we know to feature a “Splatter Zone” – where the gore hits the floor. Think Gallagher smashing those watermelons – only yuckier.

A limited number of tickets for the front section “Splatter Zone” will be available for each performance. Tickets are $30 for Splatter Zone, $25 for farther back and out of range. There is a $5 discount for students with I.D. Call 925-798-1300 or visit the Willows Theatre Tickets go on sale April 15.

The Campbell Theatre is at 636 Ward St. in downtown Martinez, one block east of Main Street at the corner of Estudillo Street.

Here’s a taste (and it’s R-rated, so proceed with caution):

There’s more at