Varla Jean Merman stars as vixenish Crystal Allen in Jungle Red, the musical parody of The Women at the Victoria Theatre. Photo by Austin Young
Cat fights and glamour: `Jungle Red’ sharpens its musical claws
The timing (to say nothing of the gowns) is impeccable.
Back in the stone age of the ’90s, the enterprising Artfull Circle Theatre presented Mark Sargent and Richard Winchester’s
Jungle Red, the inevitable drag musical version of Clare Booth Luce’s The Women, the play/movie that excludes men from participating.
The musical was revived several years later and is back yet again, this time with the very legal-sounding “a musical parody” added as a subtitle. Of course the musical appears just as the new movie version of The Women is fading (and rightly so) from movie theaters.
Let’s just say this: watching drag queens prance through the story of Manhattan marital discord is a whole lot more fun than watching Meg Ryan and Annette Benning attempt to imbue the story with deep female mysteries and meaning.
Birdie-Bob Watt is back for a third time in the Norma Shearer role (we’re referring only to the original 1939 movie) of Mary Haines, the painfully nice wife of Stephen Haines, who is philandering with a lowly perfume clerk at Saks named Crystal Allen.
Now Crystal is always a reason to see any production of The Women (except for the new movie – Eva Mendes is a washout). Joan Crawford lent her lips and shoulders to the role in ’39, and now we have the considerable curves of Varla Jean Merman to flesh out the role. Merman is reason enough to see this production, though she doesn’t quite get enough stage time. Her big number, “Jungle Red,” is pure Ann-Margret, and her bathtub scene, complete with surprising props, is a hoot.
Donna Drake’s production is an up-and-down affair. Sometimes the comic timing is sharp, other times it’s quite dull. The staging is rudimentary at best, but that helps focus attention on the terrific gowns and costumes by Mr. David and the wigs by Jordan L’Moore. There’s an amateurish quality to the production, but that also drains it of pretention and allows it to be a little more reckless. Reckless drag queens, to be sure, are funny drag queens.
Sargent’s score has some treats – “Zips Up the Back No Bone” has always been my favorite tune – and he saves a doozy for himself. Sargent, performing under the drag appellation Ethel Merman, plays the Countess de Lage and gets to trill “L’Amour” with gusto. And this production boasts some attractive vocal arrangements by Joe Collins (who also, under the nom de drag Trauma Flintstone, plays several sharply etched roles including the ever-pregnant Mrs. Potter).
Katya Smirnoff-Skyy plays Sylvia Fowler (the Rosalind Russell role) with Roz-esque fervor, and Markie de Sade in a number of roles makes a strong impression in a gold, crotch-crunching gown as Broadway hoofer Miriam Aarons. Henna Rintz squeezes laughs out of moving what little furniture there is on stage, and CoCo Royale plays sweet Peggy, well, sweetly.
Jungle Red is a fizzy delight, but when it really roars, these women are fierce.
Jungle Red continues through Oct. 4 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$40. Visit www.victoriatheatre.org for information.