Here is a review of the recent performance of The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved which took place at Town Hall New York on May 5th last. Many thanks to Peter Knox for sending in this great review.
The crowd at Town Hall on the night before this year’s Kentucky Derby was a bit different from the types of people you’d usually see around Times Square on a Friday night. There were the men, lanky yet somehow fat with long hair beneath Jazz Fest hats sporting sandals and smoking. There were the women, past middle age, wearing clothes that might have passed for fancy forty years ago that could be from a thrift store or their own closets. But my wife and I won’t forget entering the theater behind an old woman with her dog in a carrier (“It’s my service animal, you have to let us in!”) and wondering the whole night what the poor working canine would think about the event.
We were settled into our seats for the stage premier of The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, to be performed live on Broadway – New York City! I could only imagine what the Good Doctor would make of such an event, but having greatly enjoyed the 90 minute production – I would like to think he’d be enamored with a room full of people roaring from his words aloud . Or at least pleased with how the bartenders were asking everyone whether they wanted a double or triple whiskey mint julep.
If you’re reading this here, you’re familiar with the 1970 Scanlon’s Monthly Derby article that gave us “Gonzo” and gave NPR something to repost every year on Derby day. But you may not be familiar with the 2012 radio show style audio recording of Thompson’s words and Bill Frisell’s original orchestra score. Add Ralph Steadman’s artwork projected onto a screen behind Tim Robbins, three other voice actors, a dancing horse marionette, and Frisell’s capable musicians – then you can get a sense of what I can only call performance art on the big stage, this story re-imagined and brought to life.
And what life it is! The show starts with two old times projector clips; a cartoon short of a few characters meddling with horses (including sniffing glue as running motivation) to outsmart each other, then a black and white Seabiscuit documentary (that while providing cultural and historical context, went on far to long for your correspondent’s liking – but I guess they had to pad the show length to warrant the ticket price).
Then the main event began: Tim Robbins embodying the narrative and spoken voice of our protagonist Hunter S. Thompson, steady, clear, animated, lively, sarcastic, clever, cutting, and every bit as you tried to imagine it in your head as you read those words for the first time. His supporting cast comes in at the right beats, three pros playing several different distinctive voices and each shining in their own sections.
The orchestra really ties the whole operation together and gives it purpose. The jazz of the horns, the tension of the strings, the beats of the drums all keep the story moving forward, the action building to peak after peak. Robbins drives the entire enterprise, with everyone falling in line, even as one of the voice actors steps away to don a horse’s head (sunglasses and light up cigarette in a holder of course) terrorizes the audience and engages Robbins in an impromptu dance onstage.
The story, one I’ve read dozens of times, is so delightfully hilarious (easy to forget when in the depths of Derby-induced stupor), it’s a joy to see how Robbins plays it up and to laugh at the right moments among a huge crowd of Totally Gonzo fans.
But the savagery of Derby drunks feels as timely and relevant as ever – we could all do well to keep this classic alive and in the conversation. Robbins, Frisell, and company do exactly that. We’re left to wonder what HST would think of this story retold now 47 years later, but at least we know Steadman is seeing it – Friday’s performance was recorded for him to see.
Many thanks again Peter, sounds like it was a great night.