Charles Bukowski remains an eternally compelling writer for the disenfranchised, the disappointed, and the yearning hearts of the world. Made known to wider audiences as a result of the films of his work “Barfly” and “Factotum,” he has achieved cult status in American literature.
When C’est La Guerre Theater Company announced they were producing “Bukowsical!”—a musical about Charles Bukowski’s life—they immediately got my attention. Better yet, they planned to produce it in the Beam Room, the third floor of Front Street Brewery—because Charles Bukowski’s life requires a bar and copious amounts of alcohol.
Naturally, the next question I pondered: Who will play the dirty old man, himself?
Answer: Brendan Carter. And he rocks it. Buk would be proud.
“Bukwosical!” can best be described as a musical about Charles Bukowski blended with Christopher Guest’s 1996 mockumentary, “Waiting for Guffman.” Like the cast of “Red, White and Blaine” in Guest’s film, this less-than-realistic, scrappy group is putting on a performance for potential investors. They want to take their show about Bukowski’s life to Broadway. From the opening number, “Bukowsical!”, we see and hear the send-up of some of the more unpleasant and demeaning aspects of the writer’s life (“When you wake up at noon/ and you notice in bed/ that the girl there is dead/ BUKOWSICAL!”). The song is a happy, tap-dancing show tune from a golden age of musical theatre. From this, it’s apparent this will be a ridiculous and tongue-in-cheek night at the theater.
Aside from Carter, who does get a chance to showcase his wonderful rock ‘n’ roll voice, the rest of the cast play multiple roles: bar patrons, classmates, actors, directors, publishers, etc. Jeff Phillips in drag as Sweet Lady Booze might only be topped by Jeff Phillips as a TV evangelist, preaching against the horrors of a permissive society in a song that rhymes Lenny Bruce with Dr. Suess. Did I just say a character named Sweet Lady Booze? Yes! Bukowski was a dedicated, practicing alcoholic. Therefore, booze wasn’t just a beverage, it was genuinely the most comforting person in his life. Few people incite as much fun in high heels as Phillips. Of course, the visual of Phillips—already a very tall man, with the added height of high heels—next to Bryan Cournoyer, who is of diminutive stature, would make anyone smile. But, don’t think this is just relying on the joke of drag to get a laugh: Phillips is an accomplished performer and brings his “A” game to all the musical numbers. Elements of his performances from “Into The Woods,” “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Hairspray” appear here, but are enhanced with remarkable wigs courtesy of Paula Lemme of Elsewhere Salon.
Cournoyer plays The Founder, the author of the biopic musical we are watching. He also takes on a funny Tennessee Williams in a scene where dead authors visit Bukowski from the spiritual world. Cournoyer pulls out a very funny and passionate performance of the homage to the City of Angels in “That’s Los Angeles To Me.” (For a completely different take on the song, look up the Angel City Chorale singing it on YouTube.)
Everyone in the show, except Carter, play multiple roles. It is so hard to pick out favorites because the entire evening is packed with ridiculous material and startling performances. However, a pretty marvelous bit of performing becomes apparent when Devin DiMattia’s Sean Penn vs. Tony Choufani’s Mickey Rourke. They battle it out for a part in the ‘80s film
“Barfly,” as Carter looks on in surprised pleasure, and Erik Maasch spins about as a European film maker hauteur.
Considering Bukowski wrote about the promiscuities in life, including his many women, we’re bound to see them show up in the production. And, well, it’s a touchy subject. This is a man who viewed women, essentially, as disposable pleasure objects, as the song “Love is a Dog From Hell” illustrates clearly. The twin goddesses are the most revealing: Bitch Goddess of Fame (Anna Gamel) and Bitch Goddess of Fortune (Beth Corvino). But the audience gets a peek into a possible secret that Bukowski’s soul holds, and she’s apparent as his True Love (Katherine Rudeseal).
For the most part, “Bukowsical!” plays with the idea that these are not the most talented or gifted performers, but they believe themselves to be. Moments happen that bulldoze such ideas, too—particularly Rudeseal’s solos. My date leaned over to comment that Rudeseal had a perfect Tammy Wynette pitch—and she does.
Still, the audio in the show struggled. The Beam Room is not designed acoustically to be a theater, but Rudeseal’s voice is so good she had to cover her headset microphone when she hit the high note at the end of “Remember Me.” That Guffman conceit only works for the same reasons it works in Guest’s film: 1) The preformers are actually quite good; and 2) They are in on the joke.
It is such an intimate space, I expected the music to be prerecorded. But there is a live band that invigorates it: Chiaki Ito (keyboard), Keith Butler Jr. (drums), Jared Cline (guitar), and George Domby (musical director—also Buk’s dad for an early scene). They are incredible showcasing this odd hybrid of music. When I first heard about the show, I postulated that I imagined Bukowski represents a gamut of sounds, from jazz to some early punk. “Well, every song in this show sounds different; it’s not really one style,” Carter responded. That is probably the easiest way to sum it up. And the band is on top of the score from beginning to end.
Bukowski might not be a household name like Disney, but his influence on American culture and writing is real. One could argue how much of the creative non-fiction and memoir writing that has come to be so highly regarded for its gritty, earthy qualities of the last 15 years owes success to Bukowski. He laid 40 years of ground work in the popular imagination. Carter is really perfect in the role. His disregard for the norm and thinly disguised desire for all things wonderful, in spite of reality staring him in the face, comes out in a physical depiction of Bukowski’s poetic rhythm.
Aside from acoustic issues, the main thrust of the show is clear and enjoyable. The concept, the script, the twists, the presentation—it’s all immensely pleasing. It’s not meant to be a serious biopic; it plays with the absurdity of life and how art is a crutch to get through it—which is substantially what Bukowski wrote and lived.