SOLANA BEACH — The best way to see "El Grande de Coca-Cola" at the North Coast Repertory Theatre is to walk in with no expectations. Guaranteed, you'll come out an or hour so later with your face hurting from the steady hilarity.
From the gaudy one-page program to the string of colored tulip lights stretched across the tacky nightclub setting (a terrific Tijuana look-alike designed by Ronald Lang), everything about this hourlong trip to El Club Pepe Hernandez in Trujillo, Honduras, is ridiculously funny.
The cast of five rarely speak a word of English, but have no fear--they quickly prove that humor is a universal language. There is also something suspiciously Anglicized about the kind of Spanish Don Pepe and his performing relatives speak.
Thanks to director Kathleen Thompson and her carefully coached performers, all the necessary information is apparent. When someone yells a frantic "Kill the lights!" in Spanish slang, the meaning is clear.
The show begins in the middle of a major international event--or, at least, host Don Pepe (aptly portrayed by Vinny Ferrelli) would like everyone to think so. From scanning the program (don't miss the fine print), we know that his uncle, manager of the local Coca-Cola bottling company, has backed this small-time promoter's "international" Parada de Estrellas (parade of stars).
One look at the performers and it's clear this international cast is made up of Don Pepe's nephew Miguel (Andrew Rowe), his cousin Juan Rodriguez (Rick Linkowski), his daughter Maria (Kathleen Fuchs) and his stepdaughter Consuela (Sherri Allen)--parading on stage in a sequence of terribly tasteless costumes (wonderfully designed by Penny Burroughs) that do absolutely nothing to conceal the dismal lack of talent in this performing family.
They are awful. Don Pepe's toupee is preposterous. Juan's drumming is more like a hammer attack on a tarnished and dented cymbal. Miguel, the tallest one, tries to pass for a midget-sized Toulouse-Lautrec in the French segment with a silly trompe l'oeil technique that fails, and throws words like gesundheit into his phony German "Chubis Checker" imitation.
Ah, but the women! Decked out in brilliant reds, blues and banana yellows, these two must possess the loudest screeching voices ever heard on stage. Allen and Fuchs are both very talented, but this particular showcase displays comic abilities they may never use again in such a free-for-all manner. International they're not, but stars--yes.
Director Thompson's movement-oriented background shows well on this cast. It's harder to dance poorly than well, no doubt, and much more challenging to fall into the drums than to play them. They manage it all. By the time "El Grande" closes Sept. 28, the five should be quite a spectacle.
The attention to detail also pays off: buttons are never all buttoned on performers making mad dashes in and out of costume, a hopelessly tiny circulating fan rests on one side of the dull-painted stage, and the lights (nice work by designer Marvin Read) are never on cue.
Gary Holt has served as musical consultant for the production. His limited title gives a clue to the kind of piano-playing, drumming and singing to expect.
To list all the "stars" in this parade might spoil the fun of surprise, but Ferrelli's Shakespearean excerpts are too funny to ignore. Anyone who has recently seen "Ricardo el Turd" (as it's phonetically pronounced) or "Hoolio Cesaro" will appreciate gems like, "Que pasa un dagger?" slipped into the wrong scene.
The long Toulouse-Lautrec melodrama sticks fairly close to proper French, but even so Fuchs manages to replace " C'est domage " (that's a shame) with a languid " Quel fromage " (what cheese).
The plays on language are as much the point as physical slapstick. The program lists a whole crew of writers who conjured this minor literary contribution: Ron House, John Neville-Andrews, Alan Shearman, Diz White and Sally Willis.
Racist? Only a real sourpuss would say so. A few elderly patrons left in the middle of a recent performance, but they may have been wishing for the usual intermission break (the show is just over an hour and not a moment too short or long).
No matter. "El Grande de Coca-Cola" is plenty of fun for the rest of us.
"EL GRANDE DE COCA-COLA" By Ron House, John Neville-Andrews, Alan Shearman, Diz White and Sally Willis. Directed by Kathleen Thompson. Musical consultant, Gary Holt. Set design by Ronald Lang. Sound and lighting design by Marvin Read. Costume design by Penny Burroughs. With Vinny Ferrelli, Andrew Rowe, Rick Linkowski, Sherri Allen, Kathleen Fuchs. Thursday through Sunday through Sept. 28 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach.