BOY CULTURE REVIEW: *** OUT OF ****
Never let it be said that I don't have an open mind when it comes to theater. I definitely go in with preconceived notions, but I'm always open to having them challenged.
Such was the case with the new musical The Last Smoker in America, with a book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Peter Melnick and direction by Andy Sandberg. The show just screamed "I will be a Libertarian's wet dream!"—the laughs set to be derived from our country's progressively overzealous disdain for smoking—and I'm no fan of attitudes that are anti-PC even when the allegedly "PC" item in question is just common sense. I mean, I hate cigarettes. They're gross and they will likely kill you and have no benefit (unlike fattening foods).
Or do they? Because they did lead to this highly entertaining bit of musical theater.
I laughed throughout this inventive and wildly energetic show, thanks in part to its witty songs and thanks in part to a cast so wound up they seemed to be having a mass nicotine fit.
Farah Alvin is Pam, the titular last puffer, a woman intent on savoring her last remaining ciggies even as her country moves toward making smoking illegal, a crime punishable by years in prison. She anchors the show and, in spite of a flair for flare-ups, is sort of the straight woman, the person we ID with—even those of us who'd rather make out with a dog than smoke a cigarette.
Her loving hubby Ernie, a frustrated wannabe rocker whose mid-life crisis is coinciding with a hard-fought battle against nicotine addiction, is played by a brilliant John Bolton. Bolton is instantly loveable and gives a Richard Mulligan doofus quality to Ernie. His physicality is amazing, as is his flexible singing voice. He can wail.
Nosy and occasionally scary next-door-neighor Phyllis, played by Natalie Venetia Belcon (the original Gary Coleman in Avenue Q), pops over unexpectedly all the time and can sniff out secondhand smoke faster than Roscoe can find bedbugs. Belcon is hysterical, using a little-girl voice when Phyllis is playing nice and slipping into her lower register when Phyllis is doing the work of the Lord. Yes, she is a Christian against smoking. Praise Jesus! Her sanctimoniousness is unfiltered.
The final cast member is adorable Jake Boyd, who plays our smokin' couple's bratty teenager, Jimmy. Jimmy seems devoid of any positive attributes, all the better to focus on his brilliant slide into being black. His "Gangsta" is a thrilling rap extravaganza, and Boyd is totally invested and totally believable in it, spitting rhymes until you'll split your sides. Nice package, too. I'm just saying.
But the absolute best song has to be "I Wanna Call You—", in which Bolton sings, "I wanna call you the C-word," to his wife, "because asswipe's not enough." He goes into a dizzying array of substitutes, none of which quite says it like the C-word. A song that's as good as anything in The Book of Mormon.
There are a few shaky gags, but don't let the cheesy How to Beat the High Cost of Living vibe of the premise and poster fool you—it may advocate courting lung cancer, but The Last Smoker in America is brilliant, exhaustively creative and anything but a drag.
The Last Smoker in America is playing at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs.