Los Angeles Theater Review: THE MAX FACTOR FACTOR (New Musicals Inc. at Noho Arts Center)

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by Paul Birchall on August 3, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME

Ah Hollywood.  How it glitters.  How it glistens.  How true it is that when you scrape off the layers of tinsel, you find, well, more tinsel.  This musical (Adrian Bewley, book; Joe Blodgett, music; Chana Wise, lyrics) is an affectionate paean to the Good Ol’ Days of Hollywood, when Movie Stars were truly larger than life and not merely mid-level scruffballs like that Kardashian lady or that doofy guy from High School Musical.

Scene from THE MAX FACTOR FACTOR, A New Musical Comedy at NoHo Arts Center.

The Max Factor Factor is also meant to evoke the hardships of gay life in the 1935 Hollywood Era, when a pair of gay movie stars could not find a place to celebrate their love, but instead had to marry contractually-obligated women who acted as their “beards” to keep the gossip columnists and the dreaded morality police away.  Times may have changed since then, but many gay actors still remain in the closet to avoid hurting a career which would have to be fixed by a flurry of publicist phone calls and squashed newspaper stories.

Scene from THE MAX FACTOR FACTOR, A New Musical Comedy at NoHo Arts Center.

On stage at the NoHo Arts Center, in the halcyonic fantasy never-never land of 1935, things are at least straightforward in terms of public morality.  Movie star Hoyt Baxter (Jeffrey Christopher Todd) is at the top of his game, filming his latest action adventure movie with his leading lady and fiancée Clara (Jessica Snow Wilson), who is so depressed about the lack of passion in her home romance that she regularly shows up to the set drunk out of her mind.  Meanwhile, across town at a rival movie studio, Baxter’s main Tinseltown rival Lance Grant (Jeff Scott Carey) is filming another action adventure with his “girlfriend,” Alice (Jessica Howell).  The secret is that Hoyt and Lance are both a little light in the loafers, as they used to say.

Scene from THE MAX FACTOR FACTOR, A New Musical Comedy at NoHo Arts Center.

The two movie He-Men meet up at Max Factor’s, the legendary make up store where they get regular facials.  Hoyt and Lance embark on a pleasant, discreet romance. But the arrival in Hollywood of prudish morality crusader Cordelia Goodwife (Heather Olt), who has her mind set on reforming the filthy cesspool that is the City of Angels, causes inevitable conflict; particularly when she soon gets her nasty mitts on a photo of the two men sharing a steamy kiss.

Scene from THE MAX FACTOR FACTOR, A New Musical Comedy at NoHo Arts Center.

Stories of closeted gay life in Hollywood make for intrinsically compelling subject matter, and it would be fascinating to see a show that actually conveys the dangers and, one suspects, the subversive joys of living a romantic life in the demi-monde.  But, oh, is this flimsy stuff.  It would take a writer with the skill of P.G. Wodehouse or Noël Coward to meld the glitter with the saucy romantic themes; the material here is heavy-handed and contrived.

Scene from THE MAX FACTOR FACTOR, A New Musical Comedy at NoHo Arts Center.

Director Michael A. Shepperd does what he can with the lackluster material, but the heaviness extends to the pacing and to the stiff choreography.  Indeed, the show’s increasingly choppy text and clunky execution is too ploddingly paced to spark any of the much needed glamour.  The show is ponderous, and even the music is dismayingly unmemorable, with many songs coming across as the sort of insipidly plonkity-plonk low-key melodies played between sets at a local piano bar.

Scene from THE MAX FACTOR FACTOR, A New Musical Comedy at NoHo Arts Center.

Worse yet is the absolute lack of any nuance to the situations or characterizations.  We get that this is meant to be a “frothy” version of a real life story, but the lack of believability becomes increasingly irritating.  Those previously unfamiliar with the gnostic codes gay men of the past had to live by won’t learn anything about them here.  Worse, Bewley and Wise’s book does not bestow personality on many of the characters, the gay lovers being particularly little more than stick figures with names.  The tale told here is both bland and implausible.

Scene from THE MAX FACTOR FACTOR, A New Musical Comedy at NoHo Arts Center.

As an aside, while the portrayals of the gay characters are almost annoyingly insipid, it’s appalling what the piece says about women, whom the show bashes about like piñatas.  The gals here are either hysterical drunks, hysterical bigots, backstabbing traitors, or predatory lesbians – it’s creepy and misogynistic.

Scene from THE MAX FACTOR FACTOR, A New Musical Comedy at NoHo Arts Center.

Sheppard’s casting choices are appealing, though:  Todd perfectly embodies an amusingly vacuous Montgomery Clift-like quality as his gay movie star (he was also marvelous a few weeks back as a very different character in Bronies: The Musical at the Hollywood Fringe).  Ironically, though, the strongest and most amusing character turns out to be Ott’s drolly venomous turn as the bigoted morality queen:  She’s a pleasure to watch and she has one fantasy musical production number in which she “re-designs” Hollywood to fit her blinkered dreams that is genuinely funny.  With the performers caparisoned in an array of spiffy suits and gorgeous gowns, Daniel Mahler’s costumes beautifully capture a bygone era of style and glamour even as the material, filled as it is with occasional charm and humor, does not.

Scene from THE MAX FACTOR FACTOR, A New Musical Comedy at NoHo Arts Center.

photos by Bill Johnson

The Max Factor Factor
New Musicals Inc.
produced in association with Celebration Theatre
NoHo Arts Center
11136 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on August 31, 2014
for tickets, call 818-506-8500 or visit www.nmi.org

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