Contrary to showbiz wisdom, you can, indeed, skip out of a musical humming the sets — and the costumes and props, too. Tech packaging of Christopher Durang’s doting sendup of postwar film noir, “Adrift in Macao,” is so delicious that show’s flaws barely register. Book makes no sense? Feast your eyes on Willa Kim’s flamboyant costumes for a group of worldly expats adrift, as it were, in decadent Macao in 1952. Music a bit tame? Get a load of the droll lighting job on a jaded chanteuse singing a torch song in Rick Shaw’s Surf ‘n’ Turf Nightclub & Gambling Casino.
Helmer Sheryl Kaller has the right take on this zany project: Make it pretty and make it fun. With much hokey fanfare (involving, among other things, the striking of a Chinese gong and a sighting of the Maltese falcon), Durang invokes a period of American movie history that clearly makes him choke up with love and laughter. It’s that wonderful twilight era of film noir, when men carried guns under their trenchcoats, women stashed opium in their purses and everyone smoked unfiltered cigarettes while striking provocative poses under street lamps.
Scene is a dock in Macao, where a ship has just deposited several characters familiar to anyone who ever saw “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Thank You, Mr. Moto,” “Casablanca” or any movie starring Peter Lorre, Robert Mitchum or Bogie and Bacall. Before the gangplank is even rolled up, one of these iconic types (the platinum blonde in white raincoat and dark glasses) greets another (the guy in the snappy fedora) and shoots him dead.
Keeping an eye peeled on these foreign interlopers is a guy you’re gonna love. Built like a baby Sydney Greenstreet and clad in an outlandishly garish version of traditional Asian costume, he’s the grinning caricature of the “inscrutable Oriental” of countless genre movies.
His name, he tells us, is Tempura. Pourquoi Tempura? “Because I have been battered by life.”
As played in an irreverent spirit of malice and mischief by Orville Mendoza (“Pacific Overtures”), Tempura is the best kind of plot device — the know-it-all who both comments on the action and hustles it along.
“Americans are filthy/Nasty, vile and vicious,” he sings in his inspired signature turn. “Why can’t you be gracious/Like tea of August moon/I wish you’d learn some manners/Or hope you die real soon.”
Even with Mendoza’s effervescent Tempura in every scene of this spoof (originally produced by Philadelphia Theater Company), there’s not a lot of plot to hustle along. In poaching from their beloved sources, Durang and his well-matched composer, Peter Melnick, pass on those hectic criminal adventures that drive noir plots, finding stereotyped characters and cliched situations more to their liking as parody subjects.
Durang does pay lip service to the underworld storylines of vintage genre thrillers by introducing an American gumshoe by the name of Mitch. Although Alan Campbell’s clean-cut perf undercuts his tough-guy appeal, Durang’s fond feelings for this seedy hero are obvious in his lyrics.
When he isn’t brooding and striking an attitude, Mitch is looking for the mysterious Mr. MacGuffin who framed him for murder back in the States. But there’s no real point or urgency to his quest for this Hitchcockian character, since he doesn’t seem to pose much of an immediate threat. Would that he did, since the formless plot could use some feverish action involving spies or smugglers or white slave traders.
As movie cliches go, it’s hard to top show’s opening number, “In a Foreign City,” in which a glamorous dame named Lureena (Rachel De Benedet, channeling Rita Hayworth) finds herself stranded on the dock with no luggage and no dough — nothing but the slinky purple gown on her back — and instantly lands a job as a singer at Rick’s place.
Thrust onto the stage of this exotic hot spot (flame-red and hung with gilded glitter in Thomas Lynch’s amusingly garish design), the unrehearsed chanteuse wows the crowd with a song she makes up on the spot.
More cliches fly thick and fast, the absurdity of them smartly captured by Melnick’s bright, nontaxing compositions and Durang’s drolly inane lyrics. (“Woke up today, things felt OK/Now they’re not OK,” Lureena wails in her swan song, “So Long.”)
The performers, being no dummies, make the most — and in some cases, more — out of their cardboard characters. “I’ve got a lawyer and may sue/I bet in my place you’d sue too,” sings Rick (a swivel-hipped, dissipated-looking Will Swenson), affronted that he had to hire outside songwriters to get a number of his own. (Topping the gag, Rick’s song isn’t listed in the program.)
Rick actually has good cause to gripe because, as often happens in genre movies, the vividly drawn secondary characters grab the show from the principals and pretty much take it home.
Tempura you already know about, but Corinna, the tough little chantoosie who gets the boot when Lureena vamps her way into Rick’s heart, is another irrepressible scene-stealer. Hilariously caricatured by the brassy and sassy Michelle Ragusa (“Urinetown”), this “evil princess of desire” becomes the gaudy centerpiece of “Mambo Malaysian” and other supremely silly production numbers choreographed with professional economy (and indecently funny vulgarity) by Christopher Gattelli.
In a final display of shamelessness, the creatives even entice the aud to sing along for the ticky-tacky finale, “Ticky Ticky Tock,” which means everyone leaves the theater parroting the most jaw-droppingly bad lyrics to be heard on any New York stage.
With a show like this, you either shoot it down or sing along.