The Boob Show is a play about a girl who goes to Michigan. At least, that was her intended destination. But she never gets there. There’s a bump in the way. A literal bump, and it changes the course of her direction.
As written in the notes from the playwright section of the play’s Phoenix Theatre program, a while back, playwright/lyricist/composer and actor, Sally Jo Bannow began treatment for breast cancer. That was in 2003. Like any bump in the road, it changed her direction. Since then, it’s proved to be a long journey to the eventual world premiere of her one-woman comedy, The Boob Show, inspired from what was learned in 2003 until now. And if nothing else, it’s been therapeutic. Writing, re-writing, developing further, and writing some more has helped Sally Jo release her fears. The Boob Show is a tribute to the women who paved the way before her so that Sally Jo could live. Make sure you read those notes; it puts what you’re about to see in perspective.
Perhaps calling the show a one-woman play isn’t completely true. Musician Craig Bohmler later teamed with Sally Jo and helped her shape some of the music she had already written, then remained and co-wrote new material. Craig is the show’s music director and sole musician; he’s on-stage throughout, either seated behind the piano, or occasionally engaged in a sketch with Sally Jo. In keeping with the subject and its style of humor, when Sally Jo asks what he’s doing there, he replies, “I was hired to lift and support you.” Rimshot, please.
Directed by Michael Bernard, who also staged the musical sequences, as the title suggests, The Boob Show is about… well, boobs. Every nickname, every shape or size (and that includes man-boobs), and just about every attitude connected to the subject, they’re all there. As performed in Phoenix Theatre’s recently renovated and now considerably more comfortable Hardes Theatre, the setting for the comedy is in the city of Boobtropolis, scenic designer Douglas Clarke’s pink crazy-world imagining of a neighborhood not unlike Pee Wee’s Playhouse but with boobage.
The strength of the show is twofold. First, as a performer, Sally Jo Bannow is a bundle of positive energy, engaging her audience head-on the moment she bounces on stage. With a wide smile, and a thoroughly likable persona, whatever she has to tell you, you’re on her side before she’s begun. Throughout the play, the performer takes on several different, newly invented characters, each with its own voice and accent, ranging from Russian, German, English, to the deep south. As a preteen with a pink bow in her hair, she prays to the stars above to, “Please, please give me boobs by the time I turn fourteen.”
Second, the songs are generally good. Craig Bohmler’s influence on the melodies and their content is clearly evident, making the musical interludes with Sally Jo’s vocals first rate. Though several are intentionally humorous, as when the buxom character, Trixie, sings of how her cleavage makes makes men stupid, it’s the slower, poignant songs that work best. Though titles are not listed, the ballad of a mother and child, as Sally Jo breast feeds her baby, is particularly melodious and lyrically touching. It’s the same with a later, self-reflective song, presumably called There You Are; the tune is good, the lyrics, affecting, and Sally Jo’s delivery, just right. There’s even rap. “If you think I’ve lost my humor/You’ve never had a musical grown out of a tumor.” As for the more jaunty, comical songs, they may make light of things, but they’re less successful, as with a sing-a-long that names every known (and maybe unknown) slang term for breasts. Audiences are encouraged to join in as lyrics are projected on a screen. All you have to do is follow the bouncing boob.
But the subject feels stretched, and the laughs, mild at best. There’s invention to the situations and imagination to the various characters used to express them, but there’s an absence of clever, observational wit to the script, and real jokes are few. There’s nothing to bring the house down. But there are a ton of puns, as when one of the characters talks of a book she has written on the subject of boobs and calls it a “breast seller,” or when audiences are invited to take a trip, “Down Mammary Lane.” Plus, there’s repetition to the puns. When Sally Jo plays an entertainer in the Ruddy Udder Tap Room where her breasts become Leftie and Rightie Boob glove puppets, they declare, “We’re keeping you abreast at something you’re ignoring.” It’s amusing, but it feels as though the same comic ground is being covered; from sequence to sequence, it’s only the angle that’s different.
There’s no doubt, The Boob Show is a passion project, born of a personal crisis that was turned around and developed into something creative, and that is certainly admirable. Sally Jo’s climactic, impassioned rap, delivered with an ever-increasing, ardent fury, will get applause, as it should – it feels genuine and heartfelt – but in the end, with a running time of one hour and forty minutes, plus intermission, the play feels too long. There’s sixty minutes of something good. The rest, like an overstuffed bra, is just padding.
The Boob Show continues at Phoenix Theatre’s Hardes Theatre until March 25
Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography