"Rogues' Gallery," the new Sunday afternoon entertainment at the Itchey Foot Ristorante, is not designed to help you forget all your troubles and chase your blues away. It is a thinking man's musical revue, and more than a touch misanthropic.
Compiled and staged for the Mark Taper Forum's literary cabaret series by Taper dramaturge Jack Viertel, it follows the three-stools-and-a-piano format of a bright little supper club show--"Cole Porter Revisited" or "Side by Side by Sondheim."
The performances are bright. Lois Foraker, Gregory Itzin and Marnie Mosiman each know how to tell a story-in-song, and Itzin, in particular, knows how to listen to a story. His eyes widen at a line, as if to say: My God! What did she do then?
Although not a word is spoken, the effect is that of a conversation rather than a concert. These could be three old friends comparing notes about some of the characters they've run into down the years. Not so much rogues as freaks. People with something, uh, different about them.
It could be something physical, as in the case of Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen's "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" (they all remember Lydia) or Randy Newman's "Davy the Fat Boy," a friend of Itzin's. And it could be something endearing, as with William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein's "George," who insisted that you call him Georgia. Foraker just loved George.
More often the freakiness is in the head, and is not endearing. For example, Mosiman recalls "Tamara" (written by Peter Winkler, Ernest Muller and Fred Block)--not the L.A. "Tamara" but a tailored New England schoolmarm who gets her kicks taking it off every weekend at a Boston strip club.
"Tamara" is treated like a 1950s comedy number ("Boston Beguine," revisited) but the word schizoid comes up, and I think we are meant to be a little uneasy about its heroine, who may be heading for a stay at the psycho ward.
Certainly, there's a chill in Itzin's quiet rendition of Newman's "Suzanne," in which a young man waits with unpleasant constancy for the girl in the title. This is a love song to alarm the police.
The heroine of Thomas Z. Shepard and Charles Burr's "Sweet Mary Go to the Movies" isn't crazy, as far as she knows. (Foraker sings this one.) But she's over 30, and the guys aren't coming around, and the cross-town bus keeps closing the door in her face. She could be a bag lady in the making.
Then there's our old friend, Ben, from Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," crucified on the road he didn't take. Itzin does what he can for Ben, but he's still deep into self-pity.
The cast of "Rogues' Gallery"--one is tempted to say its staff--treats its characters with professional empathy, but the structure of the show keeps them at arm's length. They're like the poodles in Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller's "Professor Hauptman's Performing Dogs," curious specimens in the sideshow of life.
As for the bulk of the human race, Newman's "God's Song" tells us what contemptible clucks they are. An inspirational show this is not, but it's easy enough to take over Bloody Marys at the Itchey Foot, with the comfortable realization that you aren't one of the people that Newman writes about.
And it does represent a mordant sensibility not seen in an American musical revue before. Why, driving home, did I find myself singing Rodgers and Hammerstein?
David Anglin provides superior piano support for "Rogues' Gallery," which continues at 1 p.m. Sunday; 5:30 p.m. Nov. 16 and 1 p.m. Nov. 23. The Itchey Foot is at 901 W. Temple St. (213) 972-7231.