In the new cross-dressing musical comedy Cookin’s a Drag, now playing at The Phoenix Theatre Company until May 26, D. Scott Withers plays Betty D. Licious, the drag queen host of a TV cooking show. Betty has worked in daytime TV for several years, but now it’s her anniversary. Her manager Bradley (Toby Yatso) has arranged something extra to celebrate the event – a two-hour primetime special that will air live.
Loosely based on a 2004 30-minute TV pilot that never took off (among its several guests were Nia Vardalos and William Shatner, and where Betty’s name was spelled Dee Lishous, it also starred popular comic drag artist Steven Polito as Hedda Lettuce) the new musical version is a home-grown, locally developed production inspired from writer Scott Weiner’s television script having its world premiere during the Phoenix Theatre Company’s 99th season. It’s the theatre’s own American La Cage Aux Folles presented through the prism of a television studio kitchen.
When we first meet Betty, she’s in her dressing room nervously preparing for the broadcast. “Ever since I was a little boy, I pretended to be a little girl,” she sings. But there’s a problem. Even though she’s just sung a duet with manager Bradley called Just Us – Bradley is Betty’s Ed McMahon, Doc Severinsen, and Fred de Cordova rolled into one – she’s really feeling alone. “If romance is not for me, I’ll settle for TV,” she sings with sad reluctance once everyone has left the room. What follows once the light goes on and the three backup dancers called The Tenderloins complete their introductory song and dance is a two-hour live special played in real time where nothing goes as Betty expects, including the guests, the recipes, or her future plans.
With a cast of six performers and several more characters – Terey Summers as frantic stage manager Rosie doubles as all of Betty’s guests including the drag queen’s mother – if the show succeeds at anything it’s in the design. Taking its cue from a song in the first act called All In The Packaging where the three Tenderloins known as Tricep, Bicep, and Glute (Wesley J. Barnes, Eddie Maldonado, and Logan Scott Mitchell) perform wearing oversized Hershey Kisses then return individually dressed as either a dancing Tootsie Roll, a box of Lucky Charms, or The Laughing Cow Mini Cravings, the show itself is packaged with show biz razzle dazzle and glitter, and a fine scenic design from Douglas Clarke.
Stage left is Betty’s cluttered dressing room that gives us a peek into the drag queen’s more private moments, while the rest of the company’s wide, black box forum of its Hormel Theatre covers the TV set. Stage right is where Betty’s band sit with an open area large enough to cater for some off-camera conversations as the broadcast continues, while at center stage is Betty’s kitchen. Rather than designed to look like a typically bright, modern-day, clinically clean television kitchen full of up-to-date new gadgets, the set, with its dark painted cupboards and cabinets, appears to be inspired by the look of something you might find in Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress rotating attraction where the nostalgic look at ‘future’ American kitchens was actually designed back in 1964. Through the fake kitchen window, there’s even a painted view of Sleeping Beauty’s castle on the other side of the back yard fence.
But while it looks good, and the cast is full to the brim with exhaustive high-energy, the show and its book, written by director Michael Barnard with co-writers Vincent Vanfleet and D. Scott Withers, is labored at best. And while its opening night audience laughed at the broadness of the show’s obvious comedy, the play is really only intermittently funny. “Were you listening in on me?” asks Bradley to Bicep after catching the dancer eavesdropping on a private call. “That’s how conflict in drama is established,” responds Bicep. That’s one of the better lines.
When Summers as Rosie the stage manager enters dressed as Britain’s Queen Liz and proceeds to explain how to pound a chicken – “I bet you like to pound your chicken,” she says as an aside to one of the dancers – the scene takes the form of an unrehearsed skit in danger of falling apart, like something in a sixties TV variety show where Harvey Korman or Tim Conway in drag erupted into giggles with Carol Burnett, or a guest with an intoxicated looking Dean Martin was so loose you forgot what the piece was all about in the first place. And when Betty voices disappointment that a guest called Gracie isn’t on set after Summers dressed as a different character enters, Summers states, “You won’t be seeing Gracie while I’m out here,” the ‘reality’ behind the play is suddenly compromised. It’s as if she’s acknowledging the whole thing from beginning to end is really a series of variety hall sketches rather than a musical play. As for the Queen Liz skit, it goes on for way too long, but then again, so does the show.
With a first act that clocks in at 75 minutes and a second at 55, add the intermission and the evening runs for much longer than the material deserves. There is a plot. In between the guests, the misunderstandings, and a running gag about a recipe that goes into the oven as one thing but comes out as something completely different, Bradley keeps making off-camera calls that Betty interprets as her being replaced, though the outcome when it eventually arrives is exactly what everyone in the house expects.
The new score is mostly upbeat and sold by the exhaustive high energy of The Tenderloins, but it’s Barnard’s staging that makes them work more than the mediocre songs themselves. Only Betty’s self-reflecting Life Into Life with the emotional big finish registers. It’s the show’s I Am What I Am but without a catchy hook.
These are the early days for Cookin’s a Drag. Its premiere was delayed by a week while last-minute development continued in order to make it right for opening night. Work is still required. Cuts are needed. Perhaps a shorter, tighter, more focused version of the musical will look different at a future time. As it stands, like the dishes that go into Betty’s oven, this new Phoenix Theatre Company production works undeniably hard at including all the ingredients and emotional beats to make a thin show work, but what comes out is something unfortunately completely different.
Cookin’s A Drag continues at The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Hormel Theatre until May 26
Publicity Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography