A Bush Theater production of a musical in two acts by Jim Cartwright. Directed by Mike Bradwell, musical arrangements and direction by Neil McArthur. Sets, Geoff Rose; costumes, Rose, Rachel Turner; lighting, Jenny Kagan, sound, Simon Whitehorn. Opened, reviewed Aug. 21, 1996, at the Shepherds Bush Empire; 541 seats; $: 13 ($ 20) top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.
Cast: Alan Williams (The Traveler), Rob Jarvis (MC), Ben Goddard (Visionary Tripper); Simon Fogg, Brierley Arnell, Geoff Haves, Richard Henders, Jenna Russell, Mark Saville, Caron Pascoe.
There’s a fun concert itching to emerge from “Kiss the Sky” if its creators would only forget about Jim Cartwwight’s book. A string of ’60s oldies and goodies expanded to twice the show’s natural length, this trip down memory lane is so witless and opaque that it doesn’t so much celebrate the tumultuous passions of a decade as it does mock and demean them. Karaoke lovers may well be in their element; everyone else is advised to stay home with a lost artifact of the same era — the record album.
Subtitled “a psychedelic musical,” “Kiss the Sky” has been knocking about England under two different titles ever since its May 1991 premiere at the Octagon Theater in the northern city of Bolton. It arrives in London to inaugurate the regime of new Bush artistic director Mike Bradwell, a Bush regular who succeeds Dominic Dromgoole. In addition, it is the first production away from the tiny theater’s cushioned home while the Pub that housesit is refurbished and renamed. (The Bush hopes to return to spruced-up premises in early December.)
The theater did not have to go far to find temporary lodging — “Kiss the Sky” is playing the neighboring Shepherds Bush Empire, a rock venue some five times the seating capacity of the Bush. The occasion would seem, however, to call for a party, not an endurance test. And as for the printed warning in the program that “Kiss the Sky” features “scenes of physical and narcotic abandon,” I mean, if only.
Cartwright’s finest play to date, “Road,” was a riveting portrait of Thatcher-era dispossession in Lancashire, scored to music — “Try a Little Tenderness,” for example — that always augmented the action. (The playwright is otherwise best-known for “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice,” a London smash and Broadway quick fade.) “Kiss the Sky” has no such ambitions. From an opening blast of music that makes the start to “Tommy” sound dulcet, the aim here is to reprise the best of Cream, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the like while tapping into the anger, and some of the absurdity, of an irretrievable time.
Instead, we get lame parodies of the peace-love age — “I love you without limits, too,” says one hippie-happy couple who get married onstage — coupled with token references to Kent State, bra burning and 1968 Paris to show us that Cartwright remembers the touchstones of the period. What scant story there is comes from the mutterings of the Traveler (Alan Williams), who roams the globe only to return home to Lancashire to discover that his country offers more than merely “chips and chimney smoke.”
His ramblings don’t always make sense, but they’re more intriguing than the comments from the would-be Woodstock onstage, hosted by Rob Jarvis’ vaguely Lennon-like emcee. Though Neil McArthur’s arrangements allow for some terrific covers — Caron Pascoe’s bruising Joplin turn on “Piece of My Heart” deservedly stops the show — the patter in between is too inane to be drug-induced. There’s a tire-some running joke involving messages to the audience, as well as some lame audience participation to get us shouting expletives prior to a rousing version of Country Joe MacDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die.”
Bradwell, the director, seems to have done nothing to shape the material, and Geoff Rose’s flimsy wooden erector-set design ensures that a nearly three-hour evening is as strenuous to look at as it is to hear. At “Kiss the Sky,” the strain can be physical: My companion was beaned on the neck by an enormous floating “cloud” — at least one colleague thought it was a flying sperm — that the audience bats about the auditorium near the end of act one. Sufficiently hurt was my friend that she left at the intermission; she was the lucky one.