By: Darryl Reilly
“The Clowns Have All Gone Home” is a bombastic Sinatraesque/Liza Minnelli-type number Dusty, the tuxedo-clad clown-emcee, performs during Clown Bar’s very entertaining 40 minute pre-show. Beret, striped-shirt-wearing Thumbs, the white faced mime, plays the piano. Petunia, the squeaky voiced, leggy showgirl clown, appears with risqué dancing and joins in on the corny coarse vaudeville jokes and gags. There’s also skinny, frizzy-haired clown Brian who suggestively pumps up a long balloon and amazingly swallows it. The rest of the ensemble of rough jesters also cavorts through this burlesque environment with pratfalls, spit takes and a classic striptease including pasties. Throughout, the audience is enveloped in this accomplished over-the-top extravaganza.
Clown reservationists are outside checking people in and presenting them with red foam clown noses. After showing one’s stamped hand to the tuxedo wearing non-clown security guards, the velvet rope is pulled up and the creaky front door of an old Lower East Side building is opened.
Walking into The Box, one is in the dim bustling bar area where clown bartenders offer up drinks such as Sex With Clowns and shots of Extra Funny. It’s a short way into the cramped, crowded rectangular club where the audience sits in banquettes, small tables, bar stools on stage and chairs up in the balcony with pretty clown waitresses darting around with food and drinks. The walls are crammed with eerie paintings of clowns and circus posters. The overall effect is that of a demented surrealistic period piece recreation of The Stork Club, El Morocco, The 21 Club and The Latin Quarter, finely realized by Andy Yanni’s perfect set and prop design.
Following the opening portion the actual show begins. In the present and then through flashbacks, Happy Mahoney a former clown turned cop, investigates the murder of his gunned down brother Timmy. It’s a lurid, grim, hyper universe of film noir gangster and detective yarns with the brutal sensibility of Mickey Spillane and Fritz Lang. Populated by crooked clowns and played totally straight by the cast makes it all hilarious.
Due to the cleverly written script by Adam Szymkowicz, the show is such a marvelously detailed and novel spoof of the genre. The inspired old-time show business score is a grand collaboration between Mr. Szymkowicz, composer and additional lyricist Adam Overett and musical director and additional composer Ian Axness.
Director Andrew Neisler thrillingly succeeds at expertly staging the proceedings all over the nightclub setting. Ben Hobbs’ choreography is a vibrant achievement of dark razzle dazzle. Adding to the arresting physical dimension is the work of fight director Turner Smith who gives it the requisite rough and tumble mobster violence. Technically blending the merriment of the pre-show and later dark events is Joe Cantalupo’s appropriately shifting moody lighting design.
The dazzling costume, make-up and wig design by Meghan Gaber are integral to the show. Each of the numerous clowns’ looks is meticulously fabricated according to the character making each one a unique stand out creation.
Like the emcee of Cabaret, Dusty dominates the show and Salty Brines’ great presence and élan is in magnetic evidence in this pivotal role. Jessica Frey wonderfully plays Petunia, his performing partner, with Chicago/Fosse like zest. Music director Axness is sensational at the piano in character as Dusty’s foil, the smoking mime Thumbs.
Claire Rothrock as the worn-out stripper Blinky dances incredibly and magically captures the tragic essence of the sort of dames memorably played by Gloria Grahame. Dan Tracy’s doomed Timmy is an engaging portrayal in the manner of The Dead End Kids.
Bobbo the underworld boss is brilliantly played by Andrew Farmer with mannerisms recalling Ed Wynn that shift from whimsical to terrifying. As his menacing crew of low lifes, Willy Appelman, Daniel Johnsen, Iris McQuillian-Grace, balloon swallower Michael Lorz, Gianmarco Soresi, Amir Wachterman and Eric Williams all make indelible impressions.
As one of “The Beige People,” the only non-clown Happy, handsome and very talented Shane Zeigler stands out as the deadpan cynical detective. Dressed in a trench coat and fedora, he commandingly suggests Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, John Garfield, and Robert Stack all rolled into one.
“There are no rules in a clown bar!” But there were and one was that the audience was supposed to wear their red foam clown noses during the show. The collective sight of that adds considerably to the glorious mayhem of Clown Bar.
One can arrive beginning at 7:30 when the doors open up until 8:15, but earlier is better to experience everything.
Clown Bar (through August 2, 2014)
Pipeline Theatre Company
The Box, 189 Chrystie Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 40-minute pre-show immediately followed by the 90 minute show without intermission