Friday, May 17, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical

Gavin Crawford (top) and Kimberly Persona (photo: Alejandro Santiago)
Ecce Homo’s homage to the diva is its own brand of fame monster
by Christian Baines
What a strange and fascinating construct is Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical. Almost as strange and fascinating as its central icon, whose song catalogue now seems destined for a shelf life well beyond that of her peers. Side note to author Alistair Newton, who has pre-empted the inevitable West End jukebox abomination with something far more insightful and interesting – for this, Sir, musical theatre fans everywhere should thank you sincerely.
Nobody should step into Of a Monstrous Child expecting to hear a simple regurgitation of hits. It’s not even a ‘musical’ in the traditional sense (though if the show wishes to brand itself as such, that’s good enough for me). Rather, it’s a powerful deconstruction of the nature of art, icons and contemporary celebrity that skilfully uses Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta as its case study. 
Alig’s inclusion also begs the question of what happens when it all goes horribly wrong.

Newton is clearly an expert on all things Gaga, in as much as an outsider can be (a theme touched on throughout the show). From the sourcing of raw material, to an analysis of the entertainer in relationship to other icons such as Quentin Crisp, Andy Warhol and even Michael Alig (yes we’re dropping names, but isn’t that a good chunk of what made these people famous in the first place?), this is possibly the most intellectual work Buddies has presented all season – all delivered in the loving guise of a crowd pleasing pop show. 
Having the story – in so far as there is one – narrated by Leigh Bowery (Bruce Dow) is perhaps Newton’s best idea, as it allows him to invoke a perfect rogue’s gallery of personalities and scene/fashion/music icons in his examination of what makes Gaga’s celebrity tick. A series of divas deliver their thoughts on the emerging post-modern pop queen, though perhaps the most powerful depiction is Kyle Travis Young’s Alig. The inclusion of this character opens up a wealth of comparisons to the scenesters of the 80s and 90, and asks what Gaga has that has granted her mainstream influence where they failed. One suspects it’s simply humanity. Alig’s inclusion also begs the question of what happens when it all goes horribly wrong. It doesn’t hurt that Young absolutely nails the character, creating the eerie ghost not just of a man, but of a bygone era of self obsession.
The only misstep comes with an overlong segment depicting Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece.
Kimberly Persona pulls off a terrific impersonation of the star herself, never appearing bound by Gaga’s identity (indeed, Gaga has never shown us much of that beyond her theatrics, so Persona works with pretty much a clean slate). Tyson James is the perfect nameless, genderless, formless Little Monster – the eyes and ears of us ordinary folk, open on this extraordinary world of fame, art and excess.
A smattering of Gaga songs are deployed of course, lovingly reworked with all due copyright dodging care. The repeated use of religious iconography is judicious enough to retain its impact, yet constant enough to feel perfectly at home telling a story about the author of such songs as Judas and Black Jesus. The only misstep comes with an overlong segment depicting Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece. The inclusion of this isn’t a problem per se, particularly if we’re discussing the idea of owning a piece of one’s idols. But it goes on far too long and breaks the flow of an otherwise highly stimulating and well paced piece of theatre.
Gaga has her detractors, as well as plenty of fevered fans, many of whom will no doubt snap up a ticket to see their idol done by right. But Of a Monstrous Child is neither a condemnation, nor a tribute. It simply dissects the Gaga that is a matter of public persona and record.
Because as we are constantly reminded throughout, whoever Stefani Germanotta might be, that’s all Lady Gaga is, and all she needs to be.

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