Despite the fact that the last show in Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s 2012/2013 season is titled Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical, Lady Gaga herself takes a secondary role. There are no homages to raw-meat dresses and gold-plated wheelchairs here. Instead, writer and director Alistair Newton uses the House of Gaga as a pathway into the history of the notable performance-art stars that came before her in the pantheon of queer iconography, and how she is and isn’t a construct of all of them put together.
At the beginning of Of a Monstrous Child, three Little Monsters (“little monsters” is the name Gaga has given to her army of devoted fans) are hopping a subway to catch the deity-in-shoulder-pads live in concert. While two make the subway before its doors close, one (Tyson James) is left behind, and he plunges into a cabaret that parades Gaga’s supporters, critics, and influences (featuring Chy Ryan-Spain, Kyle Travis Young, and the matchless Gavin Crawford), and even Lady Gaga herself (Kimberly Persona). There are monologues, readings, and musical numbers corralled by the evening’s host, Leigh Bowery (Bruce Dow, known for roles at Stratford and on Broadway). From the moment our Little Monster discovers the ghost of Bowery in a stunning opening visual, Of a Monstrous Child feels like Rocky Horror Picture Show in aesthetic and form. Even so, its material has more in common with an academic lecture.
Of a Monstrous Child actually works best when it strikes a balance between those two things. The jarring opening, in which Bowery gives birth to Gaga, as well as a moment where Gaga plays a Stegosaurus-like piano (harking back to her days as Stefani Germanotta), have theatrical pizazz as well as a thematic impact. And thanks to some spot-on impersonations by Spain, Young, and Crawford (we could watch him do Bjork all day), the audience is taken through decades of boundary-pushing icons in a segment that provides context as well as entertainment.
As with all his productions, Newton delivers standout visuals, complementing his signature white face makeup (by key makeup artist Stacey Laureyssens) with gorgeous costumes by Matt Jackson (when the cast is wearing anything at all, that is). In a musical about Lady Gaga, presentation is key, and luckily Newton’s team pulls it off even when Gaga isn’t the focus. Most memorable are the show’s depiction of Spain and Young as hipsters, and a breathtakingly staged rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.”
But Newton toes a fine line with that song in particular, which begins with a powerful message but tips into unnecessary melodrama. He also sometimes has trouble finding that balance in other sections: some ooze sentimentality, others reach new intellectual heights and leave audience members scratching their heads below.
But anchoring the whole production is Dan Rutzen’s original music, performed by an engrossing cast. Dow is a wise host, one that you’ll follow down any rabbit hole. Persona is a perpetually poker-faced Gaga, and it would be easy to deem that choice as a cop-out if it weren’t for a wardrobe malfunction on opening night that saw her embody the Gaga attitude, spur of the moment.
Newton doesn’t come to any solid conclusion about our fascination with Lady Gaga, which doesn’t do much to support those Little Monsters who claim she’s more than just a party-anthem machine. But it’s a fun spectacle of music and art that makes you think, and maybe that’s the point anyway.