The story in Frank Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” is broad with deliberate satirical intent, addressing seriously and presciently the themes of artistic expression vs. government repression and the various ways sex can be used to dehumanize. Pat Towne and Michael Franco’s adaptation of “Garage” into a two-act musical is properly respectful of its source material, and the world premiere production by the Open Fist Theater Company is lively and provocative, with a committed cast. Most importantly, the impressive seven-piece band delivers with finesse and power, making this show a must-see for rock ‘n’ roll fans.
Joe (Jason Paige) has a garage band with his friend Larry (Ben Thomas). They enjoy playing their music, even if cranky neighbor Mrs. Borg (Maia Madison) keeps yelling at them to turn the volume down. Joe, however, doesn’t realize he’s being watched by the Central Scrutinizer (voice of Michael Dunn), an agent of artistic repression. When Joe’s girlfriend Mary (Becky Wahlstrom) leaves him to become a groupie, the Scrutinizer guides him unknowingly down a path that leads to the ultimate extinguishing of his spirit. As the Scrutinizer puts it: “Girls, music, disease, heartbreak — they all go together.”
Paige is an unassuming and appealing protagonist, which makes his eventual downfall all the more sobering. Strong voiced, he’s emotionally expressive in songs such as “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” and angrily sarcastic in “Packard Goose.” Wahlstrom is affecting as the unfortunate Mary, whose sexual freedom turns into a series of degradations. Thomas is appropriately cocky as Larry in “Crew Slut” and even offers a creditable guitar solo. Dunn is darkly amusing as the voice of the Central Scrutinizer, delivering his lines in a vaguely Slavic whisper. The rest of the ensemble are energetic and inspired.
Towne’s direction is effective, from his visualization of “Outside Now,” in which a series of glassy-eyed smiling people in suits and dresses mill about the stage trading money for empty boxes, literal zombies of conformity, to an audacious moment in which the audience gets to listen to the majestic instrumental “Watermelon in Easter Hay” in complete darkness.
The setup for the band takes up one-fifth of the stage, with the music right up front, as it should be. Ross Wright’s musical direction is superb, and the band is sharp and versatile, able to switch from the rousing rock of the title tune to the James Brown-esque beat of “Keep It Greasy.” Guitarist Ken Rosser impresses with his virtuosic solos in “On the Bus” and “Outside.” Jennifer Lettelleir’s choreography brings physical grace and wit to the show, and the Central Scrutinizer marionette by Jeff G. Rack and Franco, wheeling about with malicious glee, is a winner.