His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley in the Zam Zam Room
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 27, 2005
Hipsters, flipsters, and finger-poppin' daddies,
Knock me your lobes,
I came to lay Caesar out,
Not to hip you to him.
This, lords and ladies, is the essence of Lord Buckley: a cool and sassy transplantation of something famous and familiar (in this case, a poetic oration by Marc Antony written by a guy he'd call "Willie the Shake"): square morphed into hip. Lord Buckley, who lived from 1906 until 1960, apparently did this first—before MAD Magazine, before Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, way before Robin Williams and George Carlin and a whole host of other great comic minds/institutions who all profess to have been influenced by him.
I was eager to learn something about this guy; I confess that I'd never heard of him until the press release for Jake Broder's new show His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley in the Zam Zam Room hit my desk several weeks ago. I checked out this website to get some background; by all accounts, Buckley had a pretty interesting life, as artistic innovator and self-invented proto-beat celebrity. So how is it that Broder's show falls so flat?
The smallest of the three spaces at 59E59 has been transformed into, I guess, the Zam Zam Room: it looks like a vintage jazz club, with tables crammed close together and a three-man combo on stage just a few feet away—it's a perfectly authentic set (designed by Phillip Breen with scenic consultant Sabrina Braswell) except for the obvious stuff that's missing, i.e, smoke and booze. (If ever a show cried out to be performed in a jazz saloon, this is it.)
The conceit of the show is that we've traveled back some 50 years in time to one of Buckley's performances. The lights go down, Broder-as-Buckley does a short routine from offstage, he gets introduced by David Tughan (who plays the club's Emcee and Buckley's occasional co-performer), and then Lord Buckley makes his entrance. For the next 90 minutes or so, we get a sampling of classic Lord Buckley—in addition to the already-mentioned "Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Poppin' Daddies," Broder performs "The Swinging Pied Piper," "Jonah and the Whale," "The Hip Ghan" (about Mahatma Gandhi), "The Nazz" (the story of Jesus Christ), and several other pieces. All share the jive-talk that was obviously Buckley's trademark. And that's pretty much the whole scene, baby.
The thing is, as presented here, Lord Buckley feels like a one-hit wonder. The joke of turning Shakespeare into hip lingo is the exact same joke as turning the Bible into hip lingo; if Lord Buckley did anything else, we don't really find out about it here. We do get a hint, in a song called "Georgia Sweet and Kind," which juxtaposes Ray Charles's "Georgia on My Mind" with the sounds of a black man being lynched. I would have loved to have seen more of this kind of material, if there is more.
What's here amounts to too much of a good thing, and it's a little creepy and off-putting besides. Broder re-creates Buckley's use of African American dialect in delivering his pieces, which was probably a blatantly subversive political act when Buckley did it but feels just this side of offensive when a strapping young blond guy does it in 2005. And, I don't know, maybe I'm being too touchy, but isn't this (from "The Hip Ghan") sorta racist?:
So Mr. Ribadee, the Indian Patrillo,
he sent out the notes to all the Indian musicians,
to the ribadee players, the dong-dong players,
the dang-dang players, the ming-long players,
and all the reed-heads, the lute heads, and the blute heads,
and all the blowin' heads there was to come on in,
that they was gonna gas a big jam session for the Ghan.
It made me feel uneasy, and not in a consciousness-raising way, but in a times-have-changed-thank-God kind of way.
Now, all of this said, let me note that Broder works hard at creating and maintaining his persona, Tughan is terrific when he performs (whether as Abraham Lincoln or as a cool radio newscaster of the sort that George Carlin would later make his own personal property), and the band (Paul Oden on piano, Brad Russell on bass, and Jimmy Young on drums) sounds fine. This is an interesting show, and entertaining (if perhaps too repetitive). But all it did was make me want to know more about Lord Buckley, as opposed to satisfying my curiosity on its own. I hate to second guess creative people, but it seems like Broder, who wrote the show with Tughan and David Chidlow, would have better served his subject with a more expansive one-man play format: rather than trying to simulate the experience of one of Buckley's performances, maybe he could have created a new play around a performance. Buckley's work certainly speaks for itself; but as presented here, it doesn't finally say very much.