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Explosive commentary

The offensive setups in `The Beastly Bombing' are a means of getting to social satire.

October 19, 2006|Shana Ting Lipton | Special to The Times

SOMEWHERE far from the Gaza Strip, and nowhere near Fallouja, a Hasidic Jew, a Saudi Muslim and an American white supremacist lock arms and frolic blissfully in dance and song. The aforementioned scenario is not the start of a bad bar joke. It is a scene in Act I of Julien Nitzberg and Roger Neill's operetta "The Beastly Bombing: A Terrible Tale of Terrorists Tamed by the Tangles of True Love," at the Steve Allen Theater at the Center for Inquiry-West in Hollywood.

In the same vein as such topical-musical precedents as "The Sound of Music" and "The Producers," the show contains a contentious political backdrop. In this case, the main characters are Muslim and Aryan supremacist terrorists, pill-popping first daughters and a happy-go-lucky president advised by a homosexual Jesus Christ apparition. All of this is set to tunes reminiscent of the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, whose satirical 19th century musicals were performed amid a nationalistic climate.

Here, "The Beastly Bombing" centers on two pairs of terrorists (one Muslim, the other Aryan) who serendipitously meet while attempting to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge. They fail, but an unknown third party succeeds, leaving New York in a state of heightened security. The four unlikely friends hasten to find disguises when, in a zany plot twist, they end up in a Hasidic Jewish boutique. On the run and dressed in bekishes and gartels the men encounter the president's twin daughters, who are in the big city on a drugged-out lost weekend.

The libretto would probably offend if read out of musical theater context. Yet through humor, lighthearted music and over-the-top delivery, the lyrics to incendiary tunes like "Song of the Sensitive White Supremacist" might come across more as catchy social commentaries.

Not surprisingly, the show seems to resonate with local musicians and performing artists. "It's funny and smart at the same time," said Anne Ramsay of Pacific Palisades, an actress best known for playing Helen Hunt's sister on NBC's "Mad About You." Jula Bell, a bassist for the band Nip Drivers, called the work "the 'Team America'/'South Park' of operas."

Like "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Nitzberg and Neill seem to be straddling a line between popular acceptance and provocative button-pushing. The two have their share of mainstream projects under their belts. Nitzberg has written and directed for HBO, Showtime and NBC. Neill has composed music for Fox TV shows "King of the Hill" and "The Simple Life," as well as for the new film "Marie Antoinette." But when they initially set off to find a home for their two-years-in-the-making operetta, no amount of industry connections could sway local theaters.

Ultimately, a mutual friend introduced the duo to Amit Itelman, artistic director of the Steve Allen Theater, and "They got it right away," Nitzberg says.

"The nature of good satire is that it should [upset] somebody, make people think and question their ideas, as opposed to the Hollywood pabulum," he adds.

Following those guidelines, it had already created controversy before it opened. According to Neill, two years ago he and Nitzberg submitted the work for consideration in the ASCAP Disney Musical Theatre workshop, a program that fosters new American musicals. After it was rejected, he says, he received a personal phone call from its artistic director, Stephen Schwartz (best known as the creator of "Godspell"). Neill claims that Schwartz told him he liked the music but found the story line and libretto morally unredeemable. In their rebellious fashion, Nitzberg and Neill used the alleged quote in preview advertising for the show. That was until, says Nitzberg, the Steve Allen Theater received a letter from Schwartz's lawyer asking them to remove the unauthorized tag line from all ads, which they did. Schwartz denies the quote, calling it "entirely fictitious."

The line between fact and fiction is also touched upon in "The Beastly Bombing's" crooning leader of the free world, President Dodgeson, played by opera singer Jesse Merlin. Bearing a striking resemblance to the current commander in chief, he seeks to place blame when the Brooklyn Bridge is destroyed. He spins the globe, and his index finger lands on the double entendre-worthy Chad. He opts for a preemptive strike.

The show is rife with such not-so-cloaked allusions to current political affairs, and unusual conspiracy theories. Its attempt, it would seem, is to use levity and parody to create the starting point for a dialogue on power, hypocrisy and culture. And it might be dubbed an equal-opportunity offender, painting Jews, Muslims, Christians, homosexuals and even the Japanese in an equally cartoon-like light.

But these days, even cartoons aren't safe from political pressure. So, what are free-spirited artists to do? "We should have a pool on which demographic will make the first threat," says Neill, managing, as always, to maintain a sense of humor.


`The Beastly Bombing'

Where: Steve Allen Theater at the Center for Inquiry-West, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Ends: Nov. 18

Price: $20

Info: (800) 595-4849,

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