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'Knievel,' a daring jump into theater

September 24, 2007|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

Among the many firsts in the storied career of 1970s daredevil Evel Knievel -- the lines of cars, casino fountains and desert canyons he jumped, or nearly jumped, on his motorcycle -- one is too often overlooked.

Knievel was the first to jump the shark.

Yes, pop-culture junkies, it was Evel Knievel's planned 1977 jump over a shark tank in Chicago that inspired the infamous "Happy Days" episode in which the Fonz did the same (in his case, on a pair of water skis). "Jumping the shark," of course, has come to refer to the point when a TV series runs out of original ideas and grasps at any gimmick to fill airtime.

To his credit, Knievel got out of the game before he crossed that point of no return. He was seriously injured, and a cameraman lost an eye, during a test run for the shark-tank jump. He never did stunts again.

"There comes a time in a person's life when they say, enough is enough," says Jef Bek, a longtime Knievel fan and the composer-creator of "Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera," which opens this week at the Bootleg theater. "People would come up to him and say, 'Oh, I saw you jump the Grand Canyon,' when in fact it was Snake River Canyon, or, 'I saw you jump 100 cars,' when in fact it was 15 cars. So he thought to himself, 'Whatever I do, it won't be enough for them -- I can't live up to what they expect of me.'

"He also said, 'Motorcycles don't have wings.' Which is a lyric that I took for the show."

The through-sung rock opera, co-written with guitarist Jay Dover, has been a pet project of Bek's for several years. A progressive-rock musician in Chicago, Bek (his given name is Jeff Beck, but he changed it to distinguish himself from the former Yardbirds guitarist) was bitten by the theater bug when he joined John Cusack's New Crime Productions and learned that "you can really go out there when you're doing music for the theater -- a great discovery for me."

Later, as a member of the Los Angeles-based troupe Zoo District, Bek's scores helped bring to life a smoldering Nosferatu, in a show of the same name, and accompanied the flight of a pig in 2000's "The Master and Margarita."

"If we were able to get a pig off the ground, I think we can manage to get a bike off the ground," said Bek, 45, who ultimately envisions the show as a Las Vegas spectacle but for now is content to "focus on what we can do with low-tech and make it look high-tech, and to really focus on the story and the songs."

Drama, yes; bike, no

To realize his vision in a small-theater context -- in other words, on a bare-bones budget of reportedly less than $10,000 -- Bek turned to Keythe Farley, an Actors' Gang actor-director whose musical-theater claim to fame is as co-writer of the unlikely success "Bat Boy: The Musical."

"The biggest challenge here is living up to the name," said Farley, whose wife, Ann Closs-Farley, is doing the costumes. "With 'Bat Boy,' it was the reverse -- the compliment we got with that was, 'Oh my God, it was so much better than I thought it would be.' With 'Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera,' you expect to see motorcycles flying through the air, crashes, huge explosions. Well, can I do a giant rock-show spectacle for 25 cents and a pack of gum? I think I can."

Farley helped Bek and Dover hone the script and score and ultimately vetoed one key staging element.

"If I could have a motorcycle, what would I do with it?" Farley said. "I realized, not much. You can't fire it up onstage. It's an 800-pound beast that becomes a gargantuan pain in the rear. So I hate to give anything away, but we're using theater magic, the right lighting and video, to create a representation of flying."

Far more important than the pyrotechnics, it would seem, is calibrating the piece's tone. The story of Bobby "Evel" Knievel, a self-made salesman and daredevil from the mining town of Butte, Mont., is pure, uncut Americana, with a thick layer of '70s kitsch slathered on -- what witness of the '70s doesn't remember his stars-and-stripes jumpsuit, complete with matching cape and helmet?

Filter this larger-than-life story through an earnest, wailing rock-opera score, and one has to wonder: Who's jumping the shark here?

"I wanted to write something that was big and crazy and over-the-top and wild, just fraught with drama," Bek conceded.

"My music, unintentionally, has this built-in drama to it. I don't know why, but everything I write has this epic quality -- everything's 'grand,' " he said, drawing out the last word in a mock-English accent. "It's that theatrical presence I always feel when I listen to a song by Yes or Genesis."

As a "Bat Boy" co-author, Farley knows from irony. He's found that the more he celebrates excess and the less he winks, the better the results.

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