What happened to silent film legend Norma Desmond after she left Joe lying face down in her pool with three bullets in his back? Inspired by the campy 1980s stage hit, “Women Behind Bars” — which in turn was based on the ’50s prison drama, “Caged” — playwright Mark Goff whisks the addled Desmond (Gregory Messer) off to a life of incarceration, surrounded by chorus boy guards, ditzy fellow inmates and a gleefully sadistic prison matron named Mamma (Marc Ian Sklar). However, the production, featuring an all-male ensemble, never reaches a level of high parody.
Directors Erin Quigley and Michael Betts allow the action to become mired by the awkward, wearisome plot and a gaggle of self-conscious, self-indulgent performances that constantly grind the thematic flow down to a series of “are you getting it” poses.
Given a life sentence at the Women’s Correctional Institute of Hollywood, the mentally unbalanced Desmond is led by life-long friend Hedda Hopper (David Bouzas) to believe that she is actually living on a closed set while making a prison movie.
Meanwhile Matron Mamma, after being convinced by Hopper that going along with the charade will help her become a warden, commands the inmates and guards to play along. The plot gets tricky when the inmates discover that Hopper has an ulterior motive, as well as a few secrets of her own stashed in the oversize bag she always carries.
Messer’s caricature of Gloria Swanson’s Desmond is effective in pose but seldom is useful in moving the story along. Messer’s commitment to the impersonation also proves awkward in projecting the supposedly tender ballad, “Somethings,” and the chorus backed production number, “Making Movies.”
Also missing the mark is Sklar’s high energy but one-level outing as Matron Mamma. Sklar’s inability to hit the right notes also proves a disservice to composer Leo Savalas’ otherwise inventive “Mamma, Queen of the Jungle” and “Zap Your Troubles Away.”
Though often caught up in commenting on the farce rather than performing it, the quartet of prison inmates — Crystal (R. Christopher Sands), Sylvia (Carlos Penaranda), Maria (Scott Scarboro) and Penny (Rom Watson) — offers the most rewarding comedic moments of the evening. Sands is particularly effective as an arson-prone Southern belle with a stratospheric vocal range and an uncontrollable Bette Davis twitch.
The most rewarding aspect of the whole production is the imaginative silent film closing credits by videographers James Hart and Ron Lawrence.