A highlight of George Cukor’s 1954 “A Star Is Born” comes when Judy Garland’s Vicki Lester re-enacts an extravagant musical production number from her new movie, all in the confines of the actress’s Malibu living room. Lampshades substitute for headdresses, dime-store scarves for designer gowns. Jed Feuer and Boyd Graham have taken that conceit and cleverly expanded it into a full-scale musical called “The Big Bang.”
Actually, their small-scale tuner with major ambitions takes shape as a backer’s audition for what they claim will be Broadway’s most expensive musical, about the history of the world from creation to Courtney Love. They call it, appropriately, “The Big Bang,” and Feuer and Graham — playing characters with their real first names — play all the roles, which number somewhere just under a few hundred.
The audition takes place in the ghastly nouveau riche Manhattan apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Lipbalm, who are away on vacation in Israel. In one of the evening’s wittiest running gags, everything onstage performs double duty: a drink cart turns into Nefertiti’s throne; a string of garlic, Eva Braun’s blond tresses; a potted plant, Jimi Hendrix’s afro. What transpires when two inverted umbrellas meet up with a silk table cloth will not be revealed here. In this mad universe, who knows where Edward T. Gianfrancesco’s magnificent set ends and Basil Du Maurier’s equally wonderful costumes begin.
At its best, “The Big Bang” recalls Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Co. From Adam and Eve to Napoleon and Josephine, every historical character here springs full-blown from the same rabid, twisted imagination. Even an Irish farmer during the potato famine sings to his last spud somewhere “on the shores of Lake Chozzerai.”
But at its weakest, “The Big Bang” also recalls Ludlam’s famed troupe. (Who could forget a three-hour Ludlam parody of “Ring of the Nibelungen” that landed about three chuckles?) Although Feuer and Graham are gifted performers who never fail to delight, their partnership sometimes lacks the comic chemistry of classic oil-and-water acts. Are Jed and Boyd friends, lovers or two professionals turned rivals in a working relationship gone haywire? Occasionally , Jed corrects Boyd’s tangled speech, but that leitmotif is too minor to define their relationship the way, for instance, Oliver Hardy’s abuse of Stan Laurel characterized theirs.
Jed and Boyd’s relationship with the never-seen Lipbalms is also unfocused, making the musical’s ending more whimper than big bang. Still, there are all those umbrella-and-tablecloth moments, and a meeting of Pocahontas and Minnehaha over Manhattans in the Algonquin that could leave theatergoers “scalping tickets” for some time to come.