“The Big Bang,” now at Roxy’s Downtown, is a scream – often of hilarity, but occasionally of shock and awe in the vein of “oh, no, they didn’t just go there” – as Kyle Vespestad and John Bates camp and cavort their way through the entire history of civilization from the Garden of Eden to Woodstock in a breezy 90 minutes or so.
The show is very, very funny a la Monty Python or Mel Brooks (in his musical mode of “The Producers” or “Young Frankenstein”) with clever lyrics from Boyd Graham and bouncy, Broadway-lite music by Jed Feuer (the same guys who dared to musicalize Paul Bartel’s cult film “Eating Raoul” about love, jealousy, murder and cannibalism).
Consider Adam and Eve bragging about “Free Food and Frontal Nudity” before getting tripped up by a snake. Or Roman senators complaining about “Caesar, that crazy old geezer,” or the warning to “Eat your Wheaties if You Want to Work at Nefertiti’s.”
The music, ranging from upbeat to ballad to calypso, is given a fluid and lush interpretation by music director Rich Bruhn, who accompanies the duo at a grand piano and electronic keyboard in full view of the audience.
It’s a prop-heavy, slapstick farce where two overeager – make that desperate – would-be playwrights are pitching their ideas for the biggest Broadway musical of all time: a 12-hour, 300-plus cast dressed in 6,000 costumes with 1,400 wigs called “The Big Bang.” Because it’s just a pitch, the two take all the roles themselves, both male and female. We in the audience are the potential backers they’ve roped into their spiel.
The setting is a beautifully detailed penthouse apartment “borrowed” by the playwrights from unsuspecting friends who are out of town. Crafted by Christine Tasheff and John Hammer, it’s full of elegant furniture, lamps, throws, pillows, all manner of objets d’art and paintings – including coy nods to Wichita State University’s Miro bird mural and an ironic Andy Warhol (check out the not-so-subtle middle panel). More than 140 of the items are designed to become impromptu costumes or props. Laughs often erupt from the surprise of how something ordinary is repurposed into something exotic.
Opening night got off to a bit of a shaky, tentative start with some meandering, missed timing and garbled lyrics. But by the time Vespestad wrapped himself in a gold bedspread and snatched a shade off a lamp for a crown to become Nefertiti, the ultimate queen of the Nile, pushed around on her “barge” (table) by Bates using an inside-out T-shirt as an Egyptian headdress, the two local veterans were up to their expected comic speed.
Vespestad, who restaged this fast-paced show from a version the two did 15 years before, mostly plays the wide-eyed innocent and eternal optimist to straight-man Bates – the Costello to his Abbott, the Lewis to his Martin, the Goofy to his Mickey. But Bates does get a couple of great solo turns as a bored coliseum lion and hopelessly romantic Eva Braun.
Both actors have a fearless approach to pratfalls. They are also shameless hams who will do anything for a laugh. Sight gags are frequent and roll-on-the-floor funny, from Nefertiti’s crown to Napoleon’s hat. And don’t even ask what makes up Southern belle Amber Lee’s flouncy, bouncy crinolines.
You can’t get funnier than Vespestad and Bates portraying Pocahontas and Minnehaha as jaded “ladies who lunch” at the Algonquin Hotel bar, lamenting over the shallow dating pool of suitors like Laughing Stock, Falling Arches, Breaking Wind and Screaming Queen. They orchestrate the laughs line by line, piling on the funny to reach a guffaw level that leaves the audience gasping for breath.
If you go
‘The Big Bang’
What: Satirical musical about the history of the world from the Garden of Eden to Woodstock with all roles played by Kyle Vespestad and John Bates
Where: Roxy’s Downtown, 412½ E. Douglas (upstairs)
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through May 23
Tickets: Dinner/show: $40; show only, $25. Call 316-265-4400