Manson: The Musical
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
February 13, 2011
Manson: The Musical is a rock-n-roll story of a cult of murderers. If their story was not interesting to you before, perhaps it needed what EndTimes Productions has given it…grounding in groovy 1960s counterculture.
The story starts when a woman named Linda is hitchhiking and catches a ride on the Love Bus driven by the Manson Family. Charles Manson (“Charlie, Chuck or Just Plain Charles,” as one of the songs goes) is portrayed as a deep thinker, albeit high all the time, who presides over an almost-all-female commune in the desert. Since all the others he lives with are also high and oversexed, they enjoy looking for deep meanings in '60s rock records, played backwards and forwards. Most of them are quite innocuous, but “Helter Skelter” is taken to be a vision of conflict to come. Before settling down to his commune, Manson was an aspiring songwriter, and a rejection from a record producer seems to push him over the edge. Manson sends his women out to murder Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski. They also murder Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca, which is shown to be quite gruesome with the use of a strobe light. Finally, the Manson Family ends up in court, where prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi shows they have no defense to speak of. They are sentenced to death, which is commuted to life imprisonment when the State of California abolishes the death penalty in 1972.
So what is redeeming in this story? First, there is the contrast between how the groovily-dressed protagonists feel about themselves and how others see them. There is a lot of dancing and some groping of spectators who dare to sit on the aisle—take note. The actual Manson lifestyle seems to have consisted of surviving on rotting fruit found in dumpsters and rarely bathing. Their pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself looks fun but cannot, we must admit, justify the taking of life. Next, the show is interspersed with mock interviews with '60s personalities such as The Beatles, The Monkees, and The Beach Boys. All are asked questions like “Did you think Charles Manson was Jesus?” Their answers show them to have been a bit crazy themselves. The Beach Boys in particular—Manson was an acquaintance of their drummer Dennis Wilson—seem to have sympathized to some extent. The show even portrays Sharon Tate as an airhead who, pregnant at age 18, was too old for her “pedophile” husband. It is up to the spectator to decide if an airhead deserves to live. I say yes.
Manson: The Musical, a long-running hit in the '90s, was collaboratively created by the members of The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago. Subtitled “…A Different Kind of Hair,” the show definitely relies on all of its performers for its ambience. Alexander Dunbar intriguingly portrays Manson as more weird than threatening. Leal Vona as the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi is suitably riled up but can’t stop Manson from stealing his watch while on the witness stand; he along with Cheri Paige Fogleman are the LaBiancas, who are masterfully engrossed in an argument so that they don’t see their murderers. For this production, director Russell Dobular has braved the strangeness of these characters to create a highly energized, balanced portrayal. The cast is multi-talented. The band steps forward to portray The Beatles, Monkees, and Beach Boys, while some of the actors grab instruments and play along at times. Tiffany Herriott’s choreography is responsible for many of the best moments in the show. Stefan Bensaid’s sound design gives a lot of '60s atmosphere to the music venue where the show is running. Costume design is not credited; the vibrant outfits and Manson’s furry press-on beard also do a lot to create the mood, while at the same time coming off as pleasantly white-trash.