If you really listen, you’ll notice most pop music is incredibly weird. Beneath their catchy hooks, pop stars are often working out their neuroses, which tend to get worse when they get famous. Just think about the increasing paranoia in Michael Jackson’s music, or Madonna’s endless fascination with abandonment. Or better yet, check out a piece by performance artist Neal Medlyn. He’s made a career out of exaggerating pop’s dark side, and in his latest show, “Neal Medlyn’s Unpronounceable Symbol,” he takes a charming jab at Prince.
Prince, who once changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, has always fused religion and hardcore sexuality, and that’s the intersection Medlyn stages. Blending original dialogue with covers of Prince’s songs, he tells a story about two people falling in love, then explodes it by blurring their genders, exaggerating their sexuality, and letting one of them get reincarnated as Jehovah. (The plot is loosely based on Prince’s 1984 film “Purple Rain.”)
It’s tempting to look for deeper meaning, but the show keeps insisting it’s a goof — a silly riff on Prince’s earnest, theatrical antics.
For one thing, cheeky jokes abound. When we first see Medlyn (in a video projection), he’s wearing a black hat decked with gold chains that hang over his face. That’s an interesting way to make the thesp — who plays both of the lovers — seem gender neutral, but it’s also a nod to the Purple One’s 1992 video “My Name Is Prince.” Even casual fans can play “spot the reference,” which makes it easy to take the show lightly.
Creatives enhance the absurdity by playing everything with a straight face. The set, which is basically a stage for Medlyn’s band with some props thrown in, could be from a tacky ’80s music video. The pale purple floor and bed with gold sheets are total cheese, yet Bruce Steinberg lights them elegantly, beaming soft light through smoky haze as if in a love chamber.
The contrast between visuals and tone is most intense in Medlyn himself. Pale and skinny with enormous glasses, he doesn’t scream “sex machine,” yet he spends most of the show wearing nothing more than skimpy white underpants and purple leggings. When he’s playing Jerry and Neal (the gender-ambiguous lovers), he adds garish costume pieces like a gold headdress, but he rarely changes his intense facial expression. He’s telling us these lovers feel things very, very deeply.
And there’s no denying it: Medlyn’s commitment makes him hilarious, especially when he’s tearing through a sexed-up song like “U Got the Look” or acting out Jerry’s unexpected trip to an afterlife filled with sex toys.
Script is just as funny, thwarting reality with a story that makes little sense but has plenty of great jokes.
Leading the band and arranging all the music, Kenny Mellman echoes his manic cabaret work in “Kiki and Herb.” His arrangements are grandiose but sophisticated, proving that Prince’s classic “I Would Die 4 U” makes a great punk song and that obscure single “Mountains” can be a majestic ballad.
Yet as diverting as it is, the show underestimates its source. In “Unpronounceable Symbol,” a sex freak can become the Messiah simply because Medlyn puts quotation marks around everything, but in Prince’s music, the collision of faith and lust is taken seriously. Even when they’re over the top, Prince’s songs make insights worth considering.
Without that gravity, Medlyn’s show is an amusing trifle, but not as memorable as Prince’s greatest songs.