theatre/dance
August 01, 2009

Something different for Megee
by David Ollington

In 1979, Bette Midler received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of a rock icon in the Mark Rydell film The Rose. Coinciding with both the 30th anniversary of the film and the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, an ensemble of Kansas City performing artists present a theatrical version of The Rose in a store front off of Southwest Boulevard.

Spencer Brown in The Rose.

The stage is adorned with late ‘70s nostalgia. The band produces angry rock music, appropriate to the period. The lighting by John “Moose” Kimball takes us into the late-psychedelic era with a generous supply of effects. The actors light and smoke cigarettes onstage, anymore a rare occurrence. The combined elements astonish in their cohesive revisiting of not just the film but also the period. Standing at the helm of this accomplished production is actor Spencer Brown with his portrayal of Bette Midler as Mary Rose Foster, a k a The Rose.

As he speaks, close your eyes and you hear Bette’s voice, dialect and inflection. When he sings, duck and cover. His creator blessed him with a set of iron pipes, appropriately Midler-esque belting. He invests his body and spirit into the story. He has crafted not an imitation of Bette, but the deeper essence of the legendary Rose. He takes us on a live journey, infusing subtly into a larger than life role. When he delivers the title song, Amanda McBroom’s ballad, “The Rose,” have a tissue handy.

This production takes the material seriously. The audience sits in silence.  Laughs are few. We watch this tragic heroine, a Willy Loman of the baby-boomer generation, on an inevitable descent into hell. From the top of the show, The Rose, a famous rock star (often compared to Janis Joplin) laments over her fatigue, repeatedly insisting on time off. “Honey, if you had to work for a livin’, your ass would be draggin’ too,” she says.

Her bawdy humor reflects an in-your-face sexuality. “Do you want to eat some Chinese?” David Wayne Reed as her manager Rudge asks. “All 900 million of them,” she answers. She fights a hopeless battle with heroin addiction. When offered such, she calls it, “Cookies and milk.”

Reed as Rudge — masculine, understated and impatient — has created a believable foil for Spencer. His presence haunts the stage; we see The Rose’s self-destruction through his eyes.

Ron Megee directed. For those of us used to Megee’s work, we carry an expectation — campy musical numbers and zany asides to the audience, as he did with his production group Late Night Theatre. He and his cadre took films such as The Birds, Rosemary’s Baby, and 9 to 5 both making fun of and celebrating them. His version of Valley of the Dolls unearthed some darker elements with this campy, drag theatre style. With The Rose, he’s gone full force into a sober, tragic exploration of an archetypal film. 

You watch this production and wonder when Megee’s usual humor will shine forth. Brown draws you into his performance, the ensemble around him ply their talents, the story takes over, and you forget Megee’s fame as a satirist.

Megee also designed the scenery. A runway extends from the stage and darts through the center aisle. This serves not as a pathway for a fashion model, but as an attack space, where Brown clasps his microphone and berates us with furious, amplified lyric over raucous guitar riffs.  

Contrasting much of the harshness of the story and the jarring beat of the music, a rose-colored, shimmering curtain drifts from the top of the proscenium to the stage floor. This resembles much of Brown’s wardrobe, designed by Venus Starr.

True to the late ‘70s, Brown, over faded, flared jeans, wears beaded scarves, draped, shiny fabrics, and delicate wraps that offer femininity to a character stuck in a fight for her very life. His large wig, made up of tight, blonde curls, falls close around his face, again, appropriate to the era, attention-getting in size and style, but offering a hiding place around the face.

In a famous scene from the film, The Rose speaks directly to a stadium full of loving fans, calling them her family. One can’t help but recall the scene in the film, where the audience screams in fanatic response to The Rose’s words. The live Kansas City audience fails to deliver similar dialogue with Brown.

The Rose runs until Aug. 10, at Urban Culture Project’s La Esquina, 1000 West 25th St. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/71885.

David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.