Willy Nilly: A Musical Exploitation of the Most Far-Out Cult Murders of the Psychedelic Era
nytheatre.com review by Micah Bucey
August 16, 2009
With a game cast that seems positively ecstatic while reenacting giddy murders and belting dirty words, one would think that Willy Nilly, Trav S.D.'s fictionalized musical tribute to the psychoses and neuroses behind the Charles Manson murders of the 1970s, would be a naughty hoot. But something important is oddly lost in translation early on in this zippy but overlong and under-realized psychedelic stew, which advertises itself as the "anti-Hair," but really never seems sure of exactly what it is.
At times, the performers (including a rocking band that sounds glorious playing the catchy songs) and the material gleefully bring to mind the take-no-prisoners antics of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company or Charles Busch's Theatre-in-Limbo, and perhaps that feeling of barely-controlled energy is all the creators are attempting to conjure. But the story here seems to beg for a bit more than a tongue-in-cheek skewering. Too often, true exploration is sacrificed in the name of exploitative jokes that fall on the audience like lead balloons. Since the show seems unsure of its own tone, the audience has no hope of guessing. What basically plays out like a by-the-numbers, uncomplicated, chronological retelling still leaves long stretches of scenes where it is not entirely clear what is happening or how each moment will add to the show's whole. In the show's simple plot, Trav S.D. has his main character grow from prison inmate to washed-up songwriter to crazed lunatic without ever pausing to show us the causes of each gory, sadistic effect. The songs often seem intended as ironic commentary on the action, but with so little sense to the action itself, they flounder.
This confusion is far from the fault of the mugging actors. Each has a handful of moments to shine and shine they do, in spite of their uneven characterizations. Avery Pearson makes a charming antihero, until his lack of inspiration in the text turns him into a loud and unpleasant screamer, Trav S.D. himself is appropriately deadpan as the D.A., and all of the members of Willy's harem of desperate women make strong, individualized impressions. The male ensemble, playing the remaining entirety of the story's population, is intermittently entertaining, and all of the performers look great in Julianne Kroboth's kitschy costumes. In fact, all of them seem so capable that one wishes they somehow had a bit more substance on which to chew.
It's entirely possible that I simply don't completely get what Trav S.D. and his director Jeff Lewonczyk are attempting with Willy Nilly. A 30-minute sketch about a self-proclaimed messiah and his entourage of female drifters might be successful as a gruesome diversion, but at almost two hours with no intermission, this musical seems to me a bit bloated by the 60-minute mark. The melodies might be infectious, but the lyrics and book rarely offer insight into the reasons for the crimes or the inner workings of the characters. Still, with my caveats, some audiences will definitely be charmed by this production's campy sensibility, raucous music, and appealing cast.