Poor Linda Lovelace’s unique saga — ’70s sexual-excess poster-child turned living witness for the antiporn backlash — is told with dogged literalness in the through-sung “Lovelace a Rock Opera,” penned by pop music vets Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey. Despite a first-rate star turn and a strong if derivative score, the tuner’s overexplicit lyrics lack a shred of poetry or point of view, except for sympathy for the star/victim of the ground-breaking skinpic “Deep Throat.”
Hewing closely to the once discredited, now widely accepted narrative in bestsellers “Ordeal” and “Out of Bondage,” the libretto accompanies Lovelace nee Boreman (Katrina Lenk), suburban sweet young thing, into the big city bondage of sexual Svengali Chuck Traynor (a suitably monstrous Jimmy Swan).
The polyester-clad thug with Mick Jagger attitude spellbinds and marries Linda, only to attach a dog collar and pimp her out to random johns. One such client, Queens hairdresser Gerard Damiano (Alan Palmer, ridiculous in fright wig and fake goatee), reveals a filmmaking yen and a scenario about a troubled gal with a needy clitoris lodged in her windpipe. The rest, in this telling at least, is grim history.
Waronker and Caffey’s score, pre-recorded like a concept album and indebted to vamps and transitions (and sometimes whole phrases) from “Tommy” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” effectively echoes Linda’s slow descent into drug-addicted madness. Her mood-changes, from bliss to horror to despair, are cannily reflected in shifts between electric and acoustic guitar, with hints of ’70s disco flavors.
Tunes are so powerfully melodic as to double one’s disappointment at the toads constantly popping out of the characters’ mouths, setting some sort of record for pronoun usage: “All I want is to have my own life.” “I got money everywhere I go.” “Who do you think you are?” “I curse the day I met you!” (The last two are from the climactic exchange as Linda finally leaves Chuck, though we’re never sure what makes her snap or why he lets her go.)
In this banal stage play set to music, characters keep announcing their feelings and leaving no doubt as to how we’re supposed to react: Damiano is a fey moron in the vein of “Superstar’s” King Herod, Linda’s mom (a stilted Whitney Allen) an inebriated Jesus freak. It’s as if everyone but Lovelace has forfeited the right to dignity or complexity.
Meanwhile, events are less dramatized than they are described, and devoid of context: The significance of “Deep Throat” will escape anyone not alive at the time. As for the show’s pornography stance, strident feminists get the same neutral treatment as the satyrs prancing about the Playboy Mansion. Such ambivalence typifies tuners eager to tsk-tsk at sexual expression while exploiting it to the hilt.
Helmer Ken Sawyer works his ensemble for efficiency rather than effect, shuffling them around to move chairs in predictable attitudes. The show’s sex addicts and go-go dancers trot out the usual “Hey Big Spender” moves, and surely it’s time to declare a moratorium on holey black fishnet as shorthand for decadence.
The music sounds great, the added distance of pre-recording further alienating Linda from her surroundings. Lenk captures the little-girl naughtiness explaining Lovelace’s novelty and appeal, and she scores in the one song that uses metaphor: “For you’ll be so good/But I’m better when I’m bad/I’ll give the best love you’ve ever had.” (Sawyer has her end the number with uncertainty, as if asking, “Is that what you wanted?” — a heartbreaking moment.)
In the end, “Lovelace” is undone by its earnestness. Tellingly, the show’s one and only big laugh comes direct from the movie, as a bored gal asks the man between her thighs “Do you mind if I smoke while you eat?” As movie and phenomenon, “Deep Throat” was one big joke, while the systematic torture of Linda Boreman was anything but.
Translating that irony into stinging dramatic expression, giving full weight to hip humor as well as to Linda’s suffering, would seem crucial to the storytelling. But that’s lost on Waronker and Caffey as they pile on the incidents and feelings without coping with their meaning.