If you haven’t had the experience of walking from a 21st century DC street into a 1920’s-era California speakeasy and old-time cinema, and somehow I doubt you have, then you owe it to yourself to see The Comic Roach: A Roadhouse Picture Show. It is, I can say without qualification, a completely unique theatrical event.
The Snark Ensemble is a chamber-music jazz group dedicated to writing and performing new musical scores for silent films. They provide several such offerings in this production: actual silent films from the ‘20s and ‘30s with new scores played live by the band, and interspersed with songs and commentary from the house chanteuse Bella Gardon, played by the fantastic Tracy Lynn Olivera.
The above is a factually correct description of what happens in The Comic Roach. But it doesn’t begin to convey the experience of it. Sitting in the audience, you are positively immersed in this old-timey and enchanting world of Dixieland jazz and bootleg gin, of broad pratfalls and vaudevillian slapstick comedy. This immersion is the wonderful thing about the show: after only a few minutes of admiring the quality of the music and snickering at the antics in the films, you’ll find that the two combine together seamlessly to make something greater than the component parts.
As to the quality of the music, the members of the Snark Ensemble would be better served by a jazz critic here, who could appreciate the technical aspects of their art. I, as a musical layman, can only say that to me, their music – its composition and its execution – is magnificent. It is by turns lyrical and exhilarating, and when paired with the hijinks onscreen, the 6-piece ensemble suits the note to the action, as it were, flawlessly.
Olivera, who has the only speaking role in the show, is no less engrossing as the emcee Bella Gardon. She exudes Prohibition-era dry humor and swagger in her monologues, and without a doubt has the vocal chops to back it up in the songs. Olivera’s character is completely in her element on this stage, and she leaves you wanting more.
Here’s the bad news: there is only one more performance, and it’s tonight at 11. If you can get there, do yourself a favor and go. The Snark Ensemble and the estimable Ms. Gardon so fully and entertainingly evoke this era that during one of her songs about Prohibition, I found myself gripping my non-existent bourbon glass and thinking “Damn you, Hoover! Damn you AND the Temperance Movement!” That’s really something.
Produced by the Snark Ensemble
Reviewed by David Winkler