The big news about Landless Theatre Company is that it’s all grown up! I feel as though I have watched a theatrical bar mitzvah. At the end I wanted to stand up and say “Today, you are a theater company.”
This is not to say that Landless has lost the youthful, irreverent exuberance which characterized its previous musicals about the living dead, killer snowmen, Godzilla, serial killers and Warren G. Harding, among others. It is to say that with Walmartopia, Landless has taken that irreverence and merged it with flawless professionalism to create an excellent version of a difficult and complicated show.
My new heroine is choreographer Karissa Swanigan, who manages to put a cast of eleven – herself included – onto the tiny DC Arts Center stage, along with a four-artist band, and move them around in tiny precise steps so that they look like something out of a Busby Berkeley musical. Of course, one of the characters, Sam Walton’s Head (Brian Turley) doesn’t actually have any feet, so he just kind of bounces around in his box, but that’s all right. I’ve also become a fan of Musical Director Charles Johnson, who at the appropriate moment jumps out from behind his keyboard and does an impressive tap dance in the middle of a Wal-Mart board meeting, or something.
Or Brittany Williams, who gives us the most impressive Washington-area musical theater debut this side of Felecia Curry? A recent Howard BFA who has spent the last year in Hong Kong Disneyland, Williams has a magnificent voice, graceful moves and a comfortable, natural style of acting which allows her to deliver dialogue convincingly, even where it is not convincingly written. She matches up nicely, both vocally and as an actor, with Robin Rouse, the veteran Baltimore actor and jazz chanteuse who plays her mother. Oh, their choral singing is swell. Indeed, the entire musical seems like a grand chorus of joyous and complex hymns, even when they are singing about low wages, corporate oppression and sex discrimination. The songs – it is mostly songs – are unmemorable but lovely; a 135-minute-long aural treat.
As for the story: it helps if you understand that Wal-Mart is an immense retail chain and a relentless discounter famous for the low wages it pays its employees, most of whom lack the skills to work elsewhere, and for how it uses its enormousness to drive down the wholesale price of the goods it sells – even when those goods come from China or from third world countries. Wal-Mart passes most, but not all, of these savings on to its consumers, and is so able to dominate most of its local markets. Wal-Mart’s bare-knuckle business techniques have generated lawsuits (Wal-Mart is the second most-sued party in America, after the United States Government), political action and now – theater.
In this piece, Vicki (Rouse) is a hardworking Wal-Mart employee being deluded by her Madison, Wisconsin store’s scumbucket boss Pearson (Matt Baughman) that she will soon be promoted to management. Although her daughter Maia (Williams) wants her to join the union being formed by Miguel (Jason Wilson), Vicki refuses out of loyalty to the store. Too bad for Vicky; over mandatory beers at Hooters, Pearson informs her that the bootlicking Darin (Ernie Achenbach), not she, will be going to management school. But he does have something for her: she and Maia will be allowed to perform in a musical which Wal-Mart has commissioned to counteract the bad press it has been getting for its various sins. They will be allowed to perform (at no extra pay) for CEO Scooter Smiley (Andrew Lloyd Baughman) and his Board of Directors in Bentonville, Arkansas.
There are complications. The evil, insane scientist (are there any other kind?), Dr. Normal (Achenbach) – a Wal-Mart employee, natch – has discovered a portal which will allow other Wal-Mart employees to travel through time. He has already transported Sam Walton’s head (the machine does not work perfectly), which, due to some other miracle not fully described, manages to talk notwithstanding an absence of lungs and vocal chords. When Vicki is taken to meet Scooter and the Board, they are inexplicably in Dr. Normal’s laboratory, with, ah, the head. When Vicki, ever earnest, pleads with Scooter to set things to rights in their Madison store, the Head of Sam becomes so enraged (with Vicki, not Madison) that he draws her attention to his fulminations. With the gig up, Scooter and his minions have no choice but to toss Vicki and Maia through the portal and into the future.
That’s when things get weird. By 2037, Wal-Mart has taken over the world, except for Vermont which, ah, seceded. Vicki and Maia are tossed into Prison-Mart, where a co-prisoner (Wilson) convinces the prison boss (Janine Gulisano-Sunday) to release the lot of them so that they can join an acting troupe, which is filming a bit of propaganda designed to encourage support for the war against Vermont. Scooter, now quite aged and dressed like the Pope, has apparently not lost his faith in the ability of a show to win the hearts and minds of The People. But the renegades have a plan…well, you can guess the rest. Or not; it’s not important.
O.K., it’s a pretty dopey story. But that’s not important, either. What’s important is that it’s full of great singing, superb dancing, good acting. If you go to this show, you will be in Fun-Mart. I’m serious; you can’t attract talents like Gulisano-Sunday and Rouse to a show with anything less than a fully professional operation. Director Melissa Baughman; Musical Director Johnson; Artistic Director Andrew Baughman…you’re all right in my book.
Walmartopia: A Musical on a Mission
by Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn
directed by Melissa Baughman
musical direction by Charles Johnson
choreography by Karissa Swanigan
produced by Landless Theatre Company
reviewed by Tim Treanor
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.