The murder of designer Gianni Versace by gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan may seem an unlikely topic for a musical, but then, President Nixon's 1972 trip to China probably looked like a long shot, too. Area playwright/composer Christopher Jackson, whose new musical, South Beach, opened last week at the St. Marcus Theatre, isn't writing at Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's level, but let's give him points for trying. At least for Act 1. Well, definitely for "Moon Over Miami," a delicate aria, which Woody Throckmorton warbles affectingly while villain and Cunanan stand-in Matthew Bogosian fellates him. And then castrates him. When you have a ritual dismemberment in the first act, what can possibly follow?
Jackson's program notes that "the style of this production is in the Grand Guignol style, a gruesome style of theatre that originated in the Montmartre section of Paris." Count the number of times the word "style" is used in that sentence and you'll have an idea about the repetition of themes ("everybody wants to be famous") and tunes that percolate through this occasionally (but not often enough) amusing new musical.
Gay psycho Bogosian (Jesse L. Lawson) is on the loose in South Beach, Fla. All he wants is fame. Oh, yes, and to kill lots and lots of people. And to laugh real-l-l-ly loudly every time he murders. This musical purports to be about setting as much as about individuals, and with some of the characters like cheerfully drug-addled roller-skating waiter wannabe-models, Winn and Dixie the playwright shows a lively characterization, if not necessarily a light hand.
But in setting the play fails to convince. In case you've been in a diving bell, and beyond the reach of Vanity Fair and People magazines, for the past decade or so, South Beach has been the latest, hottest, coolest, now-est urban reclamation project, and Versace's 1997 slaying on the steps of his mansion put the place on the mainstream media map. Yet there's little luxe here: The painted set is washed out; the drooping palm trees on supporting columns obscure sightlines; the "couture" seems to be a lot of shiny workout spandex; and the music often yearns for but never quite achieves a topical salsa beat.
Where South Beach the musical and the Versace real-life horror show part company is somewhere in the middle of Act 1, when the wealthy Throckmorton clan, who are part of the entourage of Versace stand-in Vizcaya de Florida (Gary Cox), encounter psycho Matthew, whom they find mostly charming. In real life, Andrew Cunanan was allegedly a boastful and unconvincing braggart with a jones for show-biz news and narcotics who supported his habit by turning tricks and selling drugs and various embezzlement schemes. The Throckmortons (Birdie, Bogey and Woody golf, geddit?) don't have anything better to do than hang out with Vizcaya and his cousin Hialeah (Laura Lee Kyro), but father and son certainly partake of the local beefcake. Father Bogey is also taken in by Matthew, but son Woody remains skeptical. "You're missing a certain puzzle piece that says I was born into privilege," he croons. Matthew is indignant that Woody sees through his act, and the Throckmortons are soon dispatched in one of the more prolonged and grisly exit scenes since Little Shop of Horrors.
Other imaginative embellishments to the event include the aforementioned waiters (Daniel Arns and Kelly Scaggs), whose duet, "Two Cute Kids" ("we're two cute kids with no moral values"), had some lyrical panache and was less pun-impaired than other material. A pair of bumbling cops, Wrigley and Sam (Jeffrey Scott Yapp and Sarah Laak), who can't get a proper "Wanted" poster together, provide another subplot. They're in touch with their feelings (Laak has to sing a ballad with a completely bizarre image: "In the beating of my heart/in the seashell of my chest") but are completely oblivious of proper police procedure, as well as customary constabulary vocabulary. "Time is of the essence," says Wrigley, exhorting witnesses to come forward, which seems oddly dainty for a burly cop in a trenchcoat.
Ultimately, too much unfortunate and unconvincing writing washes up on this South Beach. Matthew's ballad "You Will Remember Me" is used four times overall; ponderous and didactic, it's not nearly melodic enough for such frequent reprisal. And for the ballad "In Philadelphia," poor Suzanne Broddon, playing Birdie, has one of the cruelest vocal scales inflicted on an actress in that wistful-soprano range. Far more enjoyable are "Senorita Chiquita," a duet-in-drag between Matthew and Wrigley that's rollicking and truly comic. Where South Beach fails is when it tries to emulate the ocean nearby here, depth takes a holiday.