Frank Zappa’s ‘Joe’s Garage’ Theater Review -- A Memorable Musical Experience

Frank Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” has roared into Los Angeles’ Open Fist Theater.  Based on teasers, early buzz and the world-famous Zappa album we already knew to expect sex, drugs, and adult content.  But, the reality is this show is so much more.

Joe with the Muffin Chorus


Based on Frank Zappa’s 1979 album, the rock opera follows “Joe” from a garage band, to rock star status, over the cliff of stardom into a drug-fueled alternate universe, through a pseudo-religious cult, subsequent (and torturous) prison time and finally into a very smiley quasi-Utopia.

Yeah, it’s a lot.  Good news is, most of the show plays very well.  Like all Open Fist productions, it’s ambitious, it moves and it’s entertaining.  Production values are impressive utilizing video projectors, vibrant jutting spotlights, a live rock band, two robotic characters and a nearly-constant slew of dancers.  Throughout the evening you’re reminded of a low-rent show in Las Vegas.  And I mean that in a good way.

All That….And…

Jason Paige's damaged "Joe"


Our story begins with a deliberately-stiffly-made electronic puppet named “The Central Scrutinizer”.  Full of character and sass, the puppet provides a voice-over narration throughout.  For me, this piece lost interest by its second appearance.  However, the crowd laughed and seemed entertained by it throughout.

Jason Paige leads us through the journey as “Joe.”  He strolls out un-assumingly.   First thought was, ‘the guy looks tired’.  As the first musical number unfolds, everyone looked tired. Overwhelmed. Could it all be too much for them?  

The answer, ultimately, was no.  Let’s call it opening jitters. By the third song “Crew Slut”, the stars had aligned and everything snapped into place.  Some credit must be given to Ben Thomas, who leads this particular song.  His naughty smirk and devil-may-care attitude presented a sultry, confident seduction.

There’s nothing better than a character having devilish fun.  This time it was David Castellani’s “Buddy Jones” during “Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt”.  Sleezy and slimy; and he ushers in a Mardi Gras feel.  

Scene stealer David Castellani


Girlfight

In previous productions, Nicole Disson has stolen the spotlight.  Now we bring up Becky Wahlstrom.  I believe Ms. Wahlstrom is talented and gifted.  She’s certainly brave.  However, here her only opportunities provide broken record reactions of anguish, shock, arousal and naivete.  She’s used as a plot device rather than a character in the story.

Around this time, Paige fulfills his destiny.  While his relatively straight work left him lacking, it seems as his character becomes more depraved and subversive, his talents blossom.  It’s fun to experience.  After intermission, he simply explodes to a point where he’s magnetic.  Bringing a fun angle to ‘being the victim’, that’s both outlandish and works in this production.  He bares his soul, among other things, and by the end, is rubbing the audience’s face in it – quite literally.  Again, something you need to see yourself to believe.


And that brings us full circle to a big theme of the production itself.  Like Las Vegas, like Mardi Gras, “Joe’s Garage” is a fun place to visit, but you probably wouldn’t want to live there.  The drugged-up nights, dark days, bright lights, and perverted haze.  Watching 22-year old girls shimmy, shake and provoke you from ten feet away through a number of costume changes.  By the end, as the ensemble serves you fresh-baked cupcakes (yes, really) you’re tired too.  You feel like Joe; dizzy and having been through a journey.  

All Things Zappa

This may be an actor’s dream come true.  Crazy, sexy, fun.  Where else would you have this dialogue, these lyrics and perform the movements and actions that you’re asked to here.  It should be a rite of passage just as you step off the Hollywood bus.

Being a rock opera, there is a rock band on the wing of the stage.  This was equally fun, different and distracting.  The mix seemed constantly too loud, often times drowning out vocals and dialogue.


Pat Towne’s direction is strong with broad strokes, but lacks detail. Moments for Paige and Wahlstrom’s characters missed shades that may have propelled the story even further. He seemed obsessed with pacing and energy, always pushing to the next song, beat or note, rather than allowing juicier moments to linger in the present.

Kudos however to Producers Michael Franco, Charles Otte and Pat Towne.  First and foremost, they were able to produce this, which has never been done before.  Their passion is evident.  Secondly, they worked the stage in ways that define tiny miracles.

Paige's "Joe" tortured in prison


Jennifer Lettellier’s choreography is intricate, naughty and very busy.   Ross Wright’s musical direction brought across Zappa vision.

Rockin’ It Hard

While Frank Zappa, his work and his family are legendary, I confess only knowing of them. I’m not familiar with the work or music and I’ve researched Zappa briefly for the purposes of this review.  With that said, his seems to be a hard road, paved with hard living and a passionate lifestyle.  To be admired, sure.

"Joe’s Garage” runs September 26th - November 22nd

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 7:00 PM

To purchase tickets, please visit: http://www.eventbrite.com/org/11574458?s
For more information, visit: http://www.openfist.org/
To watch the exclusive LA Splash trailer, click here

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