Don't Save the Cat

Theater

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY MAY 5, 2017

When Walter Paisley accidentally kills a cat, he does what anyone would do—he hides it in a lump of clay. But when the Greenwich Village arts scene declares Paisley’s inadvertent artwork a masterpiece, the once-square busboy sees an opportunity to break into the beatnik art scene that always eluded him and has to question how far he will go to keep their adoration. Opening May 6 at Asolo Repertory Theatre, Beatsville takes the audience back to 1950s New York and the bohemian world of black turtlenecks and berets for a night of musical theater and scathing satire.

“It happens time and time again in American culture,” says Glenn Slater, the Grammy-winning and three-time Tony Award nominee who wrote the book for Beatsville as spoof of not only the 1950s beatniks but modern-day hipsters and everyone in between. From the beats and their imitation beatniks to the hangers-on at the Greenwich Village folk scene, the posers rising out of Seattle post-grunge and the tattooed lumberjack look currently making the rounds in everything from music to finance, the American drive for individualism dovetails with earnest conformity time and time again in an absurd dance. “They lose what’s essential about it,” says Slater of these perennial latecomers, “and they make the initial exciting idea seem ridiculous.” At the heart of the dilemma, both for Paisley and his extant counterparts, is the value of authenticity, when the shibboleth of lingo and fashion supersede artistic merit.

But what drew Slater to the project wasn’t the opportunity to shake his literary fist at hipsters, but rather to collaborate with composer and lyricist Wendy Wilf on her return to the world of musical theater. Leaving the theater to pursue a career in jazz, earning a master’s and eventually touring Europe, Wilf comes back to the stage with a new sound fusing jazz and traditional musical theater for an effect Slater says he’s never heard onstage before. This includes incorporating vocalese, where performers translate an instrumental jazz solo into a vocal part and introduce lyrics. “So it can have content and tell a story, yet still have that unpredictability and improvisational excitement of a great jazz solo,” says Slater. “It gives you the best of both worlds.”

Opening May 6 at Asolo Repertory Theatre, Beatsville runs through May 28.

Pictured: The cast of "Beatsville." Photo by Cliff Roles.

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