Bernice Bobs Her Mullet
nytheatre.com review by Nancy Kim
September 22, 2007
During the Jazz Age, quick conclusions were made about the women sporting the scandalously short bob haircut: they were independent, stylish and worldly. Similarly, mullets have drawn equally significant meanings: those with this oft reviled hairstyle are deemed backwards and provincial. While the bob serves as F. Scott Fitzgerald's inspiration in his story, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," writer/composer Joe Major turns to the mullet for his campy riff on the Fitzgerald short story with the musical comedy, Bernice Bobs Her Mullet. Mainly substituting for the Jazz Age the equally treacherous social scene of Arkansas, Major employs an arsenal of stereotypes of redneck and trailer park humor, hitting the marks with some and shooting blanks with others.
Given an opportunity to escape the small town of Eau Claire for the great big city of Little Rock, Bernice has no hesitation about leaving her Momma and friends in the trailer park. Though promising to remain true to her roots and to wear her mullet proud, Bernice looks to the city for new and broadened experiences.
Unfortunately, Marjorie, her popular city cousin, mostly sees Bernice as an embarrassment and a risk to her own social standing. At a dance, Marjorie forces her admirers to dance with Bernice, and the admirers find her equally odious in her appearance as well as her earnestly country manners. When the all-around rejection becomes unbearable, Bernice asks for Marjorie's help in winning over her friends. In the sharply satiric song, "Hate Yourself," Marjorie advises that doing just that is the linchpin for recreating yourself. While Bernice submits to most of the changes, she balks at the suggestion that she cut off her mullet. The mullet is, after all, a basic expression of who she is and where she's from, and Bernice is not quite ready to wholly reject herself just to be popular.
Nonetheless, Bernice begins to captivate some admirers, especially Warren, a formerly overlooked suitor of Marjorie's. Teasing that she might cut off her mullet, Bernice draws them in with the possibility of this spectacle. Soon, all the attention focused on Bernice turns Marjorie against her once more, culminating in an action described in the title of this musical.
Director Andy Sandberg leads an energetic company who seem to be having a fun time. The company fully embraces the over-the-top tone of the characters—from mean girl types to the sheltered, God-fearing seminary student to the alcohol-fueled, faded Southern belle of a mother (a campy fun Ann Morrison, also playing Bernice's wannabe hairdresser mother in too few scenes). As the alpha female cousin Marjorie, Hollie Howard creates a truly over-the-edge caricature with flailing arms, glassy and unfocused eyes, and breezily high-pitched voice. Though tiring to watch at times, Howard commits and barrels through to the very end until you must surrender to her force. In contrast, Garrett Long is a very likable Bernice. Long never condescends to her character and plays as truthfully as one can when dealing with mullets and the like.
Major's songs all suffice. In the song and choreography of "The Gospel According to Draycott," it is an especially guilty pleasure despite recycling the whole white man doing the feverish gospel thing. In truth, a lot of the comedy returns to these stereotypes, but a fun cast gives us permission to laugh despite ourselves.