Tippi: Portrait of a Virgin/Judy: Born in a Trunk | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Tippi: Portrait of a Virgin/Judy: Born in a Trunk 

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at the Annoyance Theatre


Trunk Productions

at the Annoyance Theatre

If somebody wanted to play a nasty prank on Kathleen Sullivan, they could persuade her to book a performance of Tippi: Portrait of a Virgin as a benefit for Project Respect. That's the group Sullivan runs in Golf, Illinois, that has used federal grant money to develop the junior-high-school textbook Sex Respect, which uses slogans like "Don't be a louse, wait for your spouse!" and "Do the right thing, wait for the ring!" to promote teen virtue. "Look, Kathleen," some jokester might say, "here's a musical about a 17-year-old girl who successfully resists peer pressure to lose her virginity. It's fun, it's snappy, it's got neat music. It's done by this group called Metraform. They're very popular. They also do live stage versions of The Brady Bunch scripts--obviously they've got great values!"

Check it out, Kathleen! Tippi isn't good, wholesome entertainment at all. It's a put-on! This TV movie for the stage addresses such classic after-school themes as premarital sex, drunk driving, and religious freedom with a script that might have been written by Stephen King and a directorial style inspired equally by old Annette Funicello movies and Pink Flamingos.

Tippi Winslow, the perkiest New York teenager since Patty Duke lived in Brooklyn Heights, moves to tiny Brewster Falls with her mom, dad, and brother Terrance. There she meets the town characters--including tap-dancing gynecologist Brock Bennett and his Welcome Wagon busybody wife Bonnie; their son Billy, who becomes Tippi's boyfriend; Choco, the local psychic with the dark sexual secret, and her strange daughter Tamara; Deloris and Amber Waddell, the mother-daughter team of trailer-park tramps; a variety of high school types, such as the antisocial girl, the Afro girl, the harelip girl, and a pair of football stars who happen to be secret lovers; and Waldo Brewster, the tyrannical owner of the ice cream company that dominates the local economy. The big town holiday, natch, is the yearly ice cream social, and Waldo wants Tippi to be the ice cream queen. Which isn't as good as it sounds, since the ice cream queen's main function is to be a human sacrifice. The requirements for the role are that a girl be blond and a virgin, which puts Tippi in an awful bind. Brother Terrance, the sweetest semidork since Richard Crenna studied with Eve Arden, offers to help Tippi make the necessary changes--and we're not talking hair color. What's a girl to do?

Directed by Benjamin Zook, cleverly choreographed by Nancy Giangrasse, and written by the cast through an improvisational process that's still evident in the loose, slightly risky feel of the performances, Tippi is vulgar, energetic fun. It's also a ritual of postadolescent acting out in which the cast lays waste such taboos as premarital sex, incest, and homosexuality while determinedly mocking parental, medical, political, and every other kind of authority. Theatrically minimalist--performed on a stage that's nearly bare except for a few all-purpose blocks and an ever-changing series of cheap pictures on the wall--it's acted with a roughhouse zestiness that's reinforced by the party-animal atmosphere in the crowded audience, whose members are given a reprieve from the stuffy old bans on smoking, drinking, and eating enforced by most theaters (one group sat on the floor in front of the stage and ate a carryout pizza the night I was there).

Standouts among the cast, who are more talented than they let on (too much evident skill would undermine the audience rapport that is so key to Metraform's remarkable commercial success), include the slightly zaftig Melanie Hutsell, a perfect eager beaver as Tippi; David Summers as Terrance; Susan Messing, whose keen comic timing evokes a perfect Donna Reed mother, as Mrs. Winslow; the deliciously oddball Madeline Long as Choco and Tamara; and hefty, hilarious Bib Arthur as the gossip monger Bonnie Bennett. Keyboardist Lisa Yeargan, bassist Ed Furman, and a drum machine play Yeargan's delightful 60s-pop-pastiche score.

Preceding Tippi on Monday nights at Metraform's Annoyance Theatre is Judy: Born in a Trunk, in which a certain Dellamarie attempts to evoke Judy Garland. To a certain extent she succeeds--but the Garland she evokes is the out-of-tune, wobbly-voiced has-been of the late 60s (painfully preserved on a posthumously released album recorded live at London's Talk of the Town nightclub), not the brilliant artist who emerged in 1939 in The Wizard of Oz, made a triumphant comeback in 1954 in A Star Is Born, and peaked in 1961 at Carnegie Hall before too many pills and too much liquor took their toll on her frail body and fragile spirit.

I don't think Dellamarie intended her show to be a portrait of Garland in her final, rapid decline; I think she's simply not a very good singer. Dressed at first in black tights and glittering tunic and later in a black tuxedo-and-tights ensemble, she does capture Garland's look and mannerisms to a certain extent--the gaunt, sucked-in cheeks, the speed freak's nervous, dry-mouthed speech patterns, the hand-on-hip cockiness. But she misses the woman's essence--the extreme neediness that forged such an intense connection with her audience even after she could no longer deliver the goods vocally. And though Dellamarie and her musical director Lisa Yeargan faithfully present Garland's signature tunes in their distinctive arrangements (the famous medley of "You Made Me Love You," "For Me and My Gal," and "The Trolley Song" is her, as is the slowed-down alternate verse of "Chicago"), the Garland vitality is notably missing. What probably comes off as pretty impressive at private parties is disastrous in a professional theatrical setting. Watching this terrible show on the stage of the Annoyance Theatre, which in its previous incarnation as Club Victoria presented female impersonators, one can't help wishing Dellamarie would just lip-synch and let Judy sing for herself.

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