"The Wandering Whore," Philip Littell's musical portrait of the sexual underworld of 18th century London, has some good musical moments but suffers from a plot as dense and impenetrable as the famed London fog. Audience members were comparing notes at intermission, trying to piece together the story line.
Adding to its woes are the tight limitations of the Playwrights' Arena stage, where "The Wandering Whore" is seriously constrained. Writer-lyricist Littell's and composer Eliot Douglass' grandiose styling is sort of as if a drunken Charles Dickens and Andrew Lloyd Webber were to collaborate on "Cabaret/Les Miz." Coupled with A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's wonderfully detailed but expansive costuming, it pleads for a larger space.
Reluctant sailor Nat (Robin Quinn) and the whore Welsh Nan (Sarah Gossage) both drown in the Thames only to come back to observe their friends, who include cross-dressing Uncle (Littell), Peg Angel (Inara George), Mother Clap (Susan Pierson), boy-toy Little Taffy (Andy Steinlen), his sugar daddy Lord Rocket (Hans Tester) and Lord Rocket's former favorite Ned (Michael Bonnabel). Lurid situations and a fatal love triangle abound, but sympathetic characters and a compelling story line do not.
The score by Littell and Douglass lurches from sympathetic, sensitive songs bemoaning the plight of prostitution and poverty, to a bawdy love ballad to one's phallus, to campy and lewd ensemble pieces. Despite this tonal mixing and the thin voices of some cast members, there are moments when the subject matter and the voices create nice harmonies that float above this messy affair.
* "The Wandering Whore," Playwrights' Arena, 5262 W. Pico Blvd. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. through Aug. 17. $15-$20. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.