Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Russell Blackwood’s Parisian Thrills

Marissa Skudlarek, our resident Francophile, reports on a new Paris-themed musical revue. And no, she isn’t moving to Fridays, our Editor in Chief just started rehearsals for his next show this week, and so everything’s a little behind right now.

The Thrillpeddlers have been peddling thrills – in the form of outrageous, only-in-San-Francisco theater – for over 20 years. They love the tattered, tawdry glamour of the stage, and have made a name for themselves by reviving older performance styles like Grand Guignol and Theatre of the Ridiculous. That attitude shines through in their new show, Jewels of Paris, as well. It’s a musical revue that celebrates the City of Light and its legacy of beauty, art, and revolution. Under the direction of Russell Blackwood (who is also Thrillpeddlers’ Producing Artistic Director), the cast sings Scrumbly Koldewyn’s catchy songs, sports gaudy barely-there costumes, celebrates freaks and innovators, and does their best to épater les bourgeois.

One sketch in Jewels of Paris features Jean Cocteau saying (as he did in real life), “An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture,” but fortunately for us, Russell Blackwood doesn’t subscribe to that philosophy. After seeing Jewels of Paris on Friday night, I got to interview him about how he brought bygone Paris to life onstage in 2015.

Animal lovers: Roxanne RedMeat and Steven Satyricon in Jewels of Paris. Photo by David Wilson.

Animal lovers: Roxanne RedMeat and Steven Satyricon in Jewels of Paris. Photo by David Wilson.

Marissa: Thrillpeddlers have met with great success reviving other Scrumbly Koldewyn musicals in recent years, but I believe this is the first new show of his that you’ve produced. Who had the original idea to create a Paris-themed musical revue and what was Thrillpeddlers’ role in the development process?

Russell: During the past seven years, Thrillpeddlers have worked with Scrumbly to revive and reinvent his musicals from the repertoire of the fabulous Cockettes, the queer counterculture theatre troupe from early 1970s San Francisco. The Cockettes created two Parisian-themed musical revues back in the day. They were comprised largely of published music that is not in the public domain, but included a few original numbers by Scrumbly and lyricist Martin Worman. Our title song “The Jewels of Paris” is among these. When Scrumbly began working with Cockette “Sweet Pam” Tent on a new show for Thrillpeddlers last year, the idea of a Parisian-themed musical revue excited the whole company into a flurry of group creation. Not unlike Shocktoberfest, Thrillpeddlers’ annual Grand Guignol horror theatre festival, I wanted our revue to have several playwrights contribute to the bill and use Parisian-born revolutions as our raw material.

Marissa: Revues and vaudeville shows often have acts written to showcase specific performers, and I know the Thrillpeddlers are a tight-knit troupe. Were any of the songs or sketches in Jewels of Paris created with a specific actor in mind?

Russell: Oh yes, about half the material was written after the production was cast. Then, once we were in rehearsal, group discussions led to more musical numbers like the “Quasihomo & Lesmerelda” duet for J Iness and Bruna Palmeiro. The song “Chic and Tragic” was definitely penned for the show’s Pierrot, Birdie-Bob Watt, well in advance; whereas the ballad “At the Sideshow” was written overnight for Roxanne RedMeat to sing as a precursor to a one-act sex farce about a bearded lady and her lover.

Marissa: You’re known for your impeccable research into historical theater and performance styles. For instance, just from a choreographic standpoint, Jewels of Paris features avant-garde ballet, a flirty cancan, a pugnacious Apache dance, and Josephine Baker’s Charleston Sauvage. As a director, what is your approach to bringing older performance traditions to 21st-century actors and audiences, who may not be so familiar with them?

Russell: Our long-time choreographer Noah Haydon did a fabulous job fulfilling Scrumbly’s and my desire to include French dance forms. YouTube, of course, came into play. Scrumbly and Roxanne RedMeat took their inspiration for our avant-garde ballet Façade from a video recreation of the 1916 choreography of the Ballets Russes’ Parade. Alex Kinney became our dramaturg and took on creating a 13-minute homage to neoclassical drama, Molière comedy and Jean de La Fontaine’s classic folk hero Renard the Fox, all in three short acts. We’re not slavishly recreating any of these performance genres. It’s more that we’re saying “What might that have been like?” and then spinning those elements that turn us on the most. We’ve got gusto and the best of our abilities going for us. We’ve also got a missionary’s zeal to save performance forms ending up forgotten footnotes.

Chic and Tragique: Birdie-Bob Watt as Pierrot. Photo by David Wilson.

Chic and Tragique: Birdie-Bob Watt as Pierrot. Photo by David Wilson.

Marissa: If I was describing Jewels of Paris to a friend, I’d call it a bawdy burlesque romp. But the show also has several torchy ballads and confronts some more serious issues: French racism and imperialism in the Josephine Baker sequence; gentrification and the passing of time in “Oh What a World.” What was your approach to handling this material so that these serious themes were given their due, yet would not overshadow the fundamentally upbeat nature of the show?

Russell: That is the very nature of revue. Music, dance, spectacle and satire play off one another to their mutual benefit. It makes the funny stuff funnier and the poignant stuff more poignant. Both of the ballads you mention, “But Underneath” and “Oh What a World” directly follow comic sketches written by Rob Keefe on related subjects. Pierrot’s tortured tune “Chic and Tragic” is witnessed by two Americans, in a sketch by Andy Wenger that tries to define what’s so funny about a sad clown. Answer: “He’s sad and you’re not.” These are examples of Scrumbly writing songs to be paired with playwrights’ companion pieces.

Marissa: Fantasy dinner party time: if you could have dinner with any 3 Paris-related historical figures, who would you choose and why?

Russell: Oscar Wilde for wit, Sarah Bernhardt for melodrama, and Jean Genet for filth.

Marissa: The finale of Jewels of Paris invokes San Francisco as the “Paris of the West” and exhorts the audience to express their creativity and individuality. In recent years, there have been countless articles fretting that all the artists are fleeing San Francisco and that we are becoming a stale, conformist city. Having led a niche-y theater company in San Francisco for over 20 years, do you agree with this characterization of S.F.? Do you have any advice for younger artists who want to keep San Francisco weird?

Russell: While some aspects of life here have become more difficult, we have new outrages to respond to and flames to keep burning. Thrillpeddlers is a multi-generational freak theatre. Man, that makes me proud! On our stage now are some of the hottest acts I’ve seen in a quarter century in this town. If you want to see what makes San Francisco theatre exciting – come see this show!

Jewels of Paris performs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St in San Francisco, through May 2. Tickets here.

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