Dragged down by Dolls
Way more highs than lows at Valley of the Dolls
The Alibi sent two of its editors, Arts & Lit Editor Lisa Barrow and Copy Editor/Staff Writer Mark Lopez, to check out local drag troupe The Dolls’ interpretation of Valley of the Dolls. I wasn’t able to attend this performance but—since I’ve read VotD a gazillion times—Barrow and Lopez offered to let me interview them about the show. Helen Lawson—whose character was based on and originally cast as a Judy Garland role—would probably urge you to ignore this, but she’s trapped in the ladies’ room right now, ‘cause I tossed her wig in the toilet. So read on.
Who was your favorite actor/character in the Dolls’ production of Valley of the Dolls? If you saw the film or read the book, is your literary/filmic fave character/actor the same?
Mark Lopez: My favorite character was Helen Lawson, played by Tequila Mockingbyrd. The character was hilarious and spot-on in terms of comedic timing. Granted, I’ve never read the book or seen the famous 1967 flick, I was glad to go into this production with a fresh head, not knowing what to expect. But Helen Lawson blew me away from the beginning. Neely O’Hara is a close second.
Lisa Barrow: Tequila Mockingbyrd was a crowd-pleaser, it’s true, whipping the audience up every time she appeared as Helen Lawson, the cynical star who’s past her prime. But I think I most enjoyed seeing Jennifer North, the tragically beautiful starlet who’s only appreciated for her body. A doe-eyed Stacia Visage gave her a syrupy voice and a voluptuous physical presence that played up the best and funniest parts of the character. I wish there’d been more for her to do.
In the film, Dionne Warwick’s rendition of the VotD theme really sets the tone for melodrama. How is music and song used in the Dolls’ interpretation?
ML: For me, the song was used in a sort of comedic way. In the beginning, seeing Anne Wells (played by Chastity Belt-Off) walk across the stage with a makeshift train window to the track was hilarious. To me, it was sort of a precursor to the ridiculousness and outlandish quality that made it so fun and enjoyable to watch. And of course, when it played at the end, as the actors took their bows, with Jacquesan Stratton-Toya Bouvier (wow, what a name!) lip-syncing to the song, it made me understand why people are fans of the original film.
LB: I just have to say, Jacquesan Stratton-Toya Bouvier was fantastic. She had several minor roles and was magnetic in every one. Mark’s right about the show playing up the ridiculousness in just the right way—another good lip-synching moment was Helen Lawson’s big number, “I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” where they approximated those colorful 1960s decorations (I don’t even know how to describe them... some sort of Calder-inspired mobile?) and Tequila Mockingbyrd owned the stage in a weird dress you couldn’t stop staring at. But my favorite multimedia aspect to the show were the film clips. Jennifer North rolling around on a bed with a French hunk in one of her nudie films was too wonderful for words. In the VotD movie, the whole scene with Sharon Tate is pretty tame and restrained. But in the hands of The Dolls, it was sublimely bizarre.
ML: Yes! The film clips were excellent. My favorite was when they incorporated Neely O’Hara’s exercise routine in a video with the Pee-wee’s Big Adventure theme song as the backing track. It’s probably not enough to merely mention it; this is one of those instances where you have to be there to not only witness the hilarity, but to get a better context for it. Needless to say, it was pretty great.
Sometimes theater audiences can seem very self-conscious and cautious about responding … whether they’re worried about laugh-snorting or being the only one screaming “Brava!” How was the audience interaction/participation at this show?
LB: It could’ve been better. Jim Johns, the show’s director, did come out at the beginning of the show and encourage everyone to shout out favorite lines like, “SPARKLE, Neely, SPARKLE!” And the stars onstage sometimes gave the audience signals to applaud—but overall, the crowd was pretty quiet. Maybe it’d be different with a different crowd, or the Dolls will manage to drum up more audience frenzy with more performances. I hope so. But something they did really well was interact directly with members of the audience at a few key parts. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me just dangle the phrase “high flying dry humping” before you...
ML: I tend to be one of those “self-conscious” audience members that doesn’t like audience interaction too much, so in that regard, I was kind of glad that I didn’t have to participate. The moments that Lisa refers to when they interacted with people were done very selectively. But, it was done well. And as I said before, I wasn’t familiar with the subject matter of the play, so I didn’t know when it was appropriate to yell “Fag!” (And I’m gay, so it’s okay for me to say it now.) So, mum was the word … and rightly so.
Now that the performance has had a chance to percolate in the ol’ brainpan for a few days, what would y’all say the overall strengths and weaknesses of The Dolls’ VotD are? Would you be interested in attending another work interpreted by The Dolls? If you could instruct them to take on a work, what would it be?
LB: Strengths were lightning-speed scenes and skillful, funny stars. I also love how fully The Dolls grok their source material, the 1967 movie—clearly, they love its camp and its senseless shallow splendor and also grasp how ripe it is for lampooning. But their fidelity to the movie might be a weakness, too—parts of the show could seem like an in-joke if you didn’t know the scenes they were based on. Which is why anyone reading this conversation should click on the video links and get familiar with some of the original scenes and classic lines before they see the show. So, hells yes, I’d see more Dolls in a heartbeat. As to what work I wish they’d take on... Well, in a perfect world in which my own very obscure, very particular demographic were addressed, I have to admit that I would swoon over an all-drag version of Gilmore Girls. But, almost certainly, that’s just me.
ML: I agree that that one of the strengths were the “skillful, funny stars” that Lisa mentioned. Also, they utilized the space very well. When I first stepped into the theater and saw how small the stage was, I was worried that it was going to be cramped and awkward, but they moved within the boundaries so fluidly and made it work. As for what they could work on, I’m not sure. As Lisa mentioned, there were a lot of in-jokes, but they were constantly lost on me because I didn’t know where they were (also because I’m not all there), but I didn’t watch any VotD clips before or after the show, but I still enjoyed the moment for what it was, which tends to be how I like to experience things. And Lisa! A Gilmore Girls show would be fantastic! You reading my mind?