Dancing as fast as they can

The San Pedro Playhouse Cellar’s production of El Grande de Coca-Cola attains (and maintains) the level of a decent drag show. At a real drag show, of course, you’re free to do other things, such as flirt or burp or leave, while El Grande is saddled with the conventions — and seating arrangement — of a traditional theater. As a spoof of execrable cabaret, El Grande would work better in a more informal, certainly more ambulatory, setting; as a piece of echt theater, I’m not sure it works at all.

The setup is flimsiness itself: The emcee of a Latin cabaret, Señor Don Pepe Hernandez, scrambles to salvage an evening of entertainment after a troupe of “international stars” fails to materialize. He thus compels members of his family to perform that evening’s slate of acts, including magic tricks and musical acts. The result is, of course, artistic catastrophe, even if performed under the sponsorship of the mighty Coca-Cola Corporation.

The Cellar’s production, helmed by Gregory Hinojosa, can’t overcome the evening’s biggest hurdle: the wispy, unremarkable script. (A committee of five wrote the play — not a good omen.) Unlike the backstage-disaster farce Noises Off, which is buoyed by Michael Frayn’s delightfully drawn characters, there’s never a hint of the family’s spiraling desperation; the evening’s emotional temperature remains unchanged, even as the cabaret careens from pathetic paso doble to botched ballet. There’s also precious little originality: The few included songs are usually parodies of well-known melodies, such as “Chariots of Fire” or “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” (a ditty probably ripe for evisceration at the play’s premiere in 1973, but now more of a curiosity than anything else).

As the alternately frazzled and debonair emcee, Edward Gallardo III delivers the closest thing the production has to a breakout performance. He handles the “audience participation” portion of the evening with perfect flair and equally perfect Spanglish. I must admit, however, that I loathe audience participation — it’s absolutely the cheapest way to get a laugh. (Wrap your mind around this: At the Cellar, you’re paying $23 to hear tipsy audience members sing “Happy Birthday.” Or you could go to Mi Tierra and receive a family fajita plate to boot.) Happily, Gallardo also pulls off a goofy, high-spirited distillation of the film Titanic, playing Jack and Rose in Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion. The supporting cast of Isidro Medina, Gabriel Rios, Krystal Kelly, and Gustavo M. Villa Jr. fills out the evening’s roster of (intentionally) godawful performances and gauche costumes.

As Susan Sontag observed in her “Notes on Camp,” camp falls into two, er, camps: naïve (e.g. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a Tiffany lamp) and deliberate (e.g. anything by Noel Coward or Mae West). In order for deliberate camp to soar, however, it requires a superabundance of imagination and talent: We need to comprehend that the artists involved would be otherwise capable of staging Shakespeare beautifully; or executing the twist with élan; or performing Jean Genet’s cross-dressing with the earnestness and gravity that drag can, at times, inspire. And while El Grande is often dumb, it’s almost never witty, which made — for this reviewer, at least — for a long evening at the theater. For instance, in a parody of Germans, two of Pepe’s family members are stuffed into blonde wigs, thus signifying their Germanity (oh, the Germanity!) and eliciting, predictably, guffaws from the audience. Off the top of my head, I can think of three German sight gags that are wittier: Tannhäuser, dachshunds, and Project Runway’s Heidi Klum. (For a show that’s been putatively transplanted to “the present-day,” there’s almost nothing topical in El Grande. Many of the jokes would have been hoary even for the Catskills.)

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely adore campy theater, such as Howard Crabtree’s exuberantly tacky Whoop-Dee-Doo! But such theater needs to be rescued from itself by mercurial wit. Otherwise, you’re just watching bad theater. To be fair, opening night’s audience at El Grande was clearly enjoying itself: Gale-force laughter erupted at regular intervals, and the deliberately chintzy mise-en-scène (by Hinojosa and Paul Garza) spilled over into an improvised mini-bar, a nice touch. But I’m not sure why the Playhouse thought this revue was a worthy addition to TeatroFest; San Antonio’s annual Cornyation covers much the same territory, but with a keener satirical edge and, ironically, more variety. Perhaps mine is a heterodox opinion, however: Judging from the giggles of those around me, a trip to the Cellar may well ensure, for others at least, a grande ol’ time. •


El Grande de Coca-Cola
8pm Fri & Sat,
2:30pm Sun
7pm Oct 31
Through Nov 23
The Cellar Theater
San Pedro Playhouse
800 W. Ashby
(210) 733-7258

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