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A CurtainUp Review
The Last Smoker in America

We all know the evils of tobacco
i am proud that i'm a man who quit
though my wife knows smoking is a no-no
she tries to stop but she's not giving up that shit
— Ernie
The Last Smoker in America
Natalie Venetia Belcon, Farah Alvin, John Bolton and Jake Boyd
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus
George S. Kaufman once responded with, when asked the definition of a satire, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” Well, I have news for George. If the audience’s response last Saturday to The Last Smoker in America was any indication, this often hilarious socio-political satirical musical farce (yes, it’s all of that) should be around for many Saturday nights to come. Give or take a few breathers, this is a deliriously absurdist romp into the future as (scarily) imagined by collaborators Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Peter Melnick (music).

Russell, whose excellent book for the provocative Side Show earned him a Tony nomination has a compatible collaborator in shared lunacy with Melnick who composed the Drama Desk-nominated score for the Off Broadway musical Adrift in Macao. With obvious relish, they have written a show that ridicules over-zealous government intervention in our lives and its effect on an already dysfunctional family.

This iabsurdly silly 90 minutes of inanity is staged with break neck speed by director Andy Sandberg (also the show’s producer). The songs are bright, the lyrics are goofy and the story is nutty. So who’s complaining? Only those affected when the government bans the smoking of cigarettes everywhere and anywhere.

Even as each day brings more disconcerting news about stiffer penalties, including jail time for those caught with a cigarette, Pam (Farah Alvin) just can’t seem to kick the habit (“How Can I Quit Now”), nor does she want to. She hides cigarettes in the cookie jar and sneaks a quickie puff in a broom closet. Her husband Ernie’s (John Bolton) is earnestly going through withdrawal whichfinds him not only desperate in his search for a pack of nicotine, but also unable to keep his teaching job. He now spends most of his time in the basement where, he fantasizes himself a rock star composing trashy/obscene/racist songs on his guitar. Their delusional teenage son Jimmy (Jake Boyd) is addicted to video games, sugar, and listening non-stop to rap music with the result that he thinks of himself as black that is until another addiction takes its place.

So what happens to this family when their nosy and suspicious neighbor Phyllis (Natalie Venetia Belcon) comes a calling? An anti-smoking community leader/watchdog and Jesus freak (“Let the Lord Be Your Addiction”), she has her eye not only on Pam, but also on Ernie for a very different reason that would make me a spoiler to reveal. The plot hinges on Pam’s decision to desert her family, become a fugitive and underground activist in her “Fight for the Right to Light Up.” If there is a subversive anti-government element in the air, it isn’t any more hyperbolically absurdist than was Urinetown.

The highs points in this musical come from the way it has been staged as well as performed by the four amazingly versatile actors. For the most part, this compensates for any intentionally misappropriated ideologies, as well as it does for the irrationalities that surface in each of the characters.

Charlie Corcoran’s bright orange modern kitchen set is a hoot, particularly notable for the hidden panels, trap doors and set pieces that suddenly appear out of the blue (or is it out-of-the-orange?) and with the cast just as suddenly re-costumed to dance as back up for the one who having his special moment. The script and the songs allow the performers to individually peak with solos that can be best described as frenzied fantasies. Some are truly outrageous as they prompt some delightfully off-the-wall exhibitions.

The terrific Bolton couldn’t do more to make us see Ernie as a ranting wreck whose secreted rock composition “Straight White Man” turns out to be a raging compendium of jaw-dropping political incorrectness. Boyd brings the house down as the over-medicated Jimmy who, with killer body language, unleashes his black self out with the rap-propelled “Gangsta.” Belcon earns plenty of laughs as the hypocritical savior and zealot for a smoking-free community. Alvin is tenaciously funny as the frazzled Pam who finally picks up the gauntlet in her own personal crusade. Be assured that there is nothing harmful to your health when you light up with The Last Smoker in America.

The Last Smoker in America
Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell
Music by Peter Melnick
Directed by Andy Sandberg

Cast: John Bolton (Ernie), Farah Alvin (Pam), Jake Boyd (Jimmy), Natalie Venetia Belcon (Phyllis)
Set Design: Charlie Corcoran
Costume Design: Michael McDonald
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter, Grant Yeager
Sound Design (Bart Fasbender)
Music Supervision, Arrangements and Orchestrations: Fred Lassen
Choreography: AC Ciulla
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes no intermission
Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street
(212) 239 – 6200
Tickets: $85.00
Performances: Mondays at 8:00 p.m., Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 2:30 p.m. & 8:00 p.m., Thursdays & Fridays at 8:00 p.m. and Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.
From: 07/11/12 Opened 08/2/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 07/28/12

Musical Numbers
"Prologue" /Ernie and Pam
"How Can I Quit Now?" /Pam, Ernie, Jimmy and Phyllis
"Let the Lord Be Your Addiction" /Phyllis and Company
"Hangin" Out in a Smoky Bar" /Ernie and Pam
"Gangsta" /Jimmy and Company
"You're the Only Friend I've Got" //Pam, Ernie, Jimmy and Phyllis
"Straight White Man" /Ernie
"Fight for the Right to Light Up" /Pam and Ernie
"If It Feels This Good" /Phyllis and Ernie
"The Last Cigarette" /Pam, Ernie, Jimmy and Phyllis
"If Our Lungs Could Only Talk" /Phyllis, Ernie and Jimmy
"The Last Smoker in America" /Pam and Company
"I Wanna Call You-" /Ernie and Phyllis
"Smoking Makes Me Happy" / Pam
"Second-Hand Smoke" /Jimmy, Pam and Phyllis
"The Last Smoker in America" (reprise) /Ernie and Company
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