Valhalla, which nicely opens Diversionary Theatre's 20th season, features Lisel Gorell-Getz and Laura Bozanich in multiple roles against some right uppity menfolk. That is a totally cool thing-both are outstanding, as their characters match their male counterparts' stubbornness at every turn. Good news for writer Paul Rudnick, whose black comedies rely on an extreme of one trait or another. His imagination is ordinarily over the wall, not just off it, and here, Gorell-Getz and Bozanich accommodate him without reservation.
Everybody else is fine, too-but the women's roles are vital to this show's success. They anchor the progression of the very men they harass, chiefly Mad King Ludwig II (Andy Collins), who passed for Bavaria's figurehead in the latter 19th century. Rudnick paints the Ludmeister as not only gay but without a statecraftsman's bone in his body-he's a priggish, jittery flamer in a frantic search for the extraordinary, spending the mid-1880s building country castles inspired by Richard Wagner's operas.
Rudnick meshes Ludwig's story with that of the fictional James Avery (Angelo d'Agostino), an incorrigible gay kid out of redneck 1930s East Texas who follows his winsome paramour Henry Lee Stafford (Andrew Kennedy) onto the battlefields of World War II-this after he takes on "redecorating" his parents' house by burning it down.
Rudnick tracks each man's evolution for the better part of a decade, examining his quests for the existential utopia. But, in the process, he's gone to a lot of unnecessary effort. Which wartime heavyweight, after all, rivaled Ludwig's Wagnerian passion inch for inch? Who was also widely (albeit quietly) rumored to be gay even amid his very public notoriety? Who was crazy as a tire iron, with a thirst for combat exactly proportional to Ludwig's disdain for it? Whose contempt for aesthetic beauty unwaveringly comports with the king's admiration for same?
If you answered Adolf Hitler, buy yourself a double Jack and Coke, no ice, and put it on my tab. Hitler, or a Hitlerian persona, would have made a much cleaner time parallel to Ludwig's character, and look what a hefty target he makes in the light of history. Mel Brooks nailed the man's sorry butt to the pavement in his antiwar The Producers, and his record 12 Tonys say his tack was absolutely on the money. Why manufacture a fantastical counterpart when the original's staring you in the ass?
In any case, James and Henry don't change their spots that radically between puberty and young adulthood, and d'Agostino and Kennedy (who has an exceedingly brief nude scene) behave accordingly. Zachary Mikles makes an ideal Shakespearean fool in several roles, while director Tim Irving complements Rudnick's bug-eyed wonder with seasoned approval. Rudnick occasionally sacrifices character for punch line. Then again, what playwright doesn't?
Altogether, this is a job well done, mounted as Diversionary anticipates another 20 years. Under new executive director Dan Kirsch, the place is on a roll.
This review is based on the performance of Sept. 10. Valhalla runs through Oct. 2 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $9-$27. 619-220-6830.
More music, more often
Your verdict on the musical Miss Saigon, Starlight Theatre's season-ending entry, will depend on the degree of stock you put in the tunes.
This three-time 1991 Tony winner centers on a Vietnamese woman named Kim (Jennifer Paz) and the red tape that scuttles her postwar reunification with her American soldier and their son. It also touts a positively sublime score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil. But the entries are so incredibly lush and poignant that each practically stands alone-too often, the story's peaks and valleys get lost in favor of the individual selection's musical prowess.
Near the end, the story ever so slightly loses sight of the Vietnam War as the catalyst for the tragic climax. But, oh, for those tunes, like "Why, God, Why" and "Last Night of the World"-man!
Miss Saigon runs through Sept. 18 at the Starlight Bowl, 2005 Pan American Plaza in Balboa Park. $10-$49. 619-544-7827.