Billy The Mountain and Other American Card Tricks
nytheatre.com review by Tess Gill
August 19, 2006
Billy the Mountain and Other American Card Tricks offers some great production values as far as Fringe shows go. The show makes the most of the beautiful Harry de Jur Playhouse, filling it with ambitious choreography, creative set pieces, and eclectic rock music. The well-rehearsed troupe of ten actors/dancers and four musicians work together in a noble attempt to create an epic rock opera for the 21st century.
Inspired by Frank Zappa's 1972 song-story, Mt. William ("Billy the Mountain") decides to use the money he's earned in royalties (posing for all of those tourist postcards) to go on a road trip with his wife, Ethell, a tree growing off of his shoulder. As they rout their way across the country (mountains tend to devastate everything in their path), Billy is drafted into the war, declared a domestic terrorist by the President, and forced to contend with American superhero Studebaker Hoch. And that's just one of the many storylines.
The company behind this show, Striding Lion InterArts Workshop, has been workshopping the piece extensively in their hometown of Chicago since the fall of 2004. Although they feature segments of Zappa's actual song, they have included additional music to reference current wartime concerns. A song featuring the talented dancer/chorus women playfully examines our current Homeland Security Advisory System via a color-coded striptease. Girls in panties are always crowd-pleasing and it fits right in with Zappa's bawdy humor.
The cast comes together nicely to make this show its best. They are all company members and have contributed to this story. You can feel their commitment in their performances (sometimes a bit overzealous for my taste). Director Amanda Berg Wilson pulls double duty, also playing our hostess for the show. She sets the right tone from the get-go: all smiles with authority and pleasant legs. From there we are taken on a wild ride, Zappa-style. The musicians are top-notch, doing justice to Zappa's licks and resourcefully melding in their own.
I'm not sure if you need to be a fan of '70s Prog Rock to enjoy this show. I am, to a certain degree, and am willing to go on any trip out there as long as its grounded. Although I was certainly intrigued for the entire hour and 20 minutes of Billy the Mountain, I felt ultimately that it tried to do too much at once and was left not knowing where to focus. Otherwise, it's zany, Zappa fun.