When the Alley Theater moved from its former Butchertown basement digs to a Museum Row storefront earlier this year, the move seemed to signal an ambition on the part of the company to grow its profile in the community. A mainstay of Louisville fringe theater for decades, The Alley’s been around a few blocks — I remember seeing a production of “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” in one of their former spaces on Baxter back in the mid-Nineties — and their quirky programming (pop culture parodies, zombie fare) keeps them running a fairly niche market.
But with a big storefront sign on the 600 block of Main Street, a skip away from 21C and the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, The Alley could be an alternative magnet for tourism and downtown visitor dollars. Certainly, the location would indicate serious (if cheeky) art happening inside, but the current show, the sci-fi disco musical “Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens,” isn’t professional-grade theater. This show has the potential to draw in a late-night adventurous audience (think San Francisco’s “Beach Blanket Babylon”), but The Alley’s lackluster production falls short of its promise — and it lacks fabulousness.
“Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens” is one of several current prospective heirs to the “Rocky Horror Show” crown, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for this noncommittal exercise in faux-camp to win the glitter throne any time soon. The show itself, with music by Jonathan Croose and Robin Forrest and book and lyrics by Charlotte Mann and Michael Fidler, is a fair-to-middling effort about a seedy space cabaret run by a petty tyrant whose performers fall victim to a serial killer until the titular vixens bring justice to the universe. The show has one stand-out song (the incredibly hummable “Glitter Boots Saved My Life”) and an engaging premise, but the characters and story aren’t fierce enough to wear Frank-n-Furter’s garters.
That would be fine, really, if the production worked the material to its highest potential. But for a script that revels in drag, disco queens, and kink, director Joey Arena’s production feels awfully … straight. Arena seems to lack the sensibility for this kind of comedy, as most of the wit in the script falls flat. In her “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag writes that to understand camp is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role, that it’s the furthest extension of the metaphor of life as theater. This show’s camp sensibility feels half-embraced. The actors come across as actors playing roles, not consummate characters embracing performance as a way of being, and so the show just feels silly, not transgressive or liberating in the least. Really, it’s harder to act like you don’t really know how to act than it looks.
Technically, too, The Alley has some ways to go to keep up with its ambitions. The recorded music often overwhelmed vocals, especially from upstage and from the weaker singers. The lighting choices were baffling at times — a crucial action scene staged almost entirely in the dark, the first dramatic appearance of the vixens tragically under-lit.
Saucy Jack’s cabaret is a sort of outer space Rick’s Café, staffed by sulky bartender Mitch (J.P. Lebangood), southern-fried drag ingénue Booby (Harrison Coffman), saxophone player Sammy (Daniel Smith) and torch singer Vulva Savannah (the actress refused billing). They’re all terrified of Jack (Scott Goodman), but it’s hard to understand why, since the affable Goodman is quite unthreatening. Coffman has great stage presence but is left to do most of the heavy lifting among the Saucy Jack’s gang — Smith is cheerfully bland, Lebangood swings between two facial expressions (sullen smirk, pained grimace), and the vaguely German barfly Dr. Von Wackoff (Rick O’Daniel-Munger) is under-used. Coffman has the strongest voice and dance presence of this bunch, too. Unfortunately, many of the musical performances are intensely underwhelming, including an homage to fetish wear that could have been empowering had Lebangood not played it for silly laughs instead.
Thankfully, the space vixens do arrive, like visitors from some better class of planet. Jubilee (Susan Crocker), Anna (Valerie Canon) and Bunny (the aforementioned anonymous actress) bring some much-needed glamour to this threadbare scene as intergalactic crime busters who suffer no fools. Marcy Zeigler also delivers a memorable performance as the butch love interest to Bunny, the most tragic of the vixens. All four have strong, polished voices and move well — would that the rest of the production could keep up.
“Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens” runs through May 17 at The Alley Theater (633 West Main St.).
(Critic’s note: An earlier comment on Mr. Goodman’s demeanor in the role has been edited for clarity. Apologies to the cast for my unclear writing.)