The Two Sides of Consistency

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

There's a great scene in the film Basquiat, where the artist asks how long it takes to get famous. The artist's friend Benny, played by Benicio del Toro, says, "Four years. Six to get rich." Then he shares the secret, "You gotta do your work all the time...the same kinda work, the same style - over and over again, so people recognize it and don't get confused."



It's the artist's conundrum - and a formula that the Troubadour Theater Company has successfully followed to a T.

The Troubadours, or Troubies as they're known, take a well known story - say a Shakespeare play or a classic film - mix it with familiar pop songs and blend the two together till the result is one part broad parody, one part production dance numbers. It's all stretched around a simple narrative with enough room for sketch comedy ad-libs and audience asides. Their show titles say it all: Fleetwood MacBeth, It's a Stevie Wonderful Life, A Charlie James Brown Christmas.

poster.jpgThe latest Christmas show, their tenth at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank is A Christmas Westside Story - the plot from A Christmas Story with the music and dance from Westside Story. Basically, "Ralphie" wants a Red Ryder BB gun...when he's not dancing like one of the Jets.

The joy of the show, and the Troubies' repertoire, is a balancing act between precise order and utter chaos. The order comes in the intentionally derivative song and dance numbers. While it's choreography as parody - they can dance and - mostly - sing. The chaos comes from the skeletally scripted scenes that rely on the actor's improv-ing comic asides that break the fourth wall, comment on the action, and generally derail the story. The magic, when it's there, is watching the actors joyfully dig themselves out of hole they've just created. It's the comic heir to the Commedia dell'Arte by way of Harvey Korman cracking himself up on the Carol Burnett Show.

It's a holiday show and I don't want to be a Scrooge but let me jump back to that Basquiat scene where Benny continues, "You have to keep doing it the same way, even after it's boring - unless you want people to really get mad at you."

What you can't escape is - A Christmas Westside Story is following a formula. While I doubt anyone is going to a Troubies' show expecting narrative complexity, their latest feels a little bare. By act two of the hour and forty-five minute show you begin to wish he'd just get the BB gun already.

But the Troubies get the last laugh: the show's already sold out. In fact, they sold the last ticket before the show even opened. How many theaters in LA can say that? What's more, they've won Ovation Awards for "Best Season" two out of the last three years.

The flip side of a well-worn formula is giving the people what they want: consistency. Sitting in the audience at the Falcon Theatre, there's no question folks are in on the joke. After ten years, it's their holiday tradition.

A Christmas Westside Story plays at the Falcon Theatre in Toluca Lake through January 15.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 1:45 with intermission.

Banner image: 'Flick' (Joseph Keane) and company in Troubadour Theater Company's A Christmas Westside Story. Photo by Chelsea Sutton