Bitch on Wheels

Toto's tormentor pedals her story in the hilarious Miss Gulch Returns!

Miss Gulch Returns! Kennedy's at Playhouse Square, 1519 Euclid Avenue Through March 27, 216-241-6000
Ever since Judy Garland traipsed down the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz, damn near every kid has awakened in the night, sweat-soaked and trembling, from visions of either the flying monkeys or the nasty Miss Almira Gulch, who morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West. Thanks to performer Margaret Hamilton's diabolical shriek and screech, Wicked/Gulch has become a cultural touchstone for all that is evil, mean-spirited, and petty. In short, the perfect subject for a musical revue!

About 20 years ago, playwright and lyricist Fred Barton wrote Miss Gulch Returns!, in which our bi (as in bicycle) lady shares her feelings about herself, relationships with men, and life as a stone-cold shrew. As an added fillip, the role of Almira is played by a man, which turns most of Barton's witty and deliciously wicked songs into gay anthems posing as lonely-woman blues. In fact, the intricate and hysterical lyrics are the major reason this Miss Gulch, directed by Lora Workman at Kennedy's at Playhouse Square, takes flight.

A bald and beefy fellow first takes the stage, pretending to hit on an invisible Miss Gulch in a bar. But in a trice his coat is off, a long dress falls into place, and he becomes the black-straw-hatted, martini-swilling harridan herself. It doesn't take her long to reveal nagging gripes, starting with her regret that her solo was cut from the movie. She shares that song, "I'm a Bitch," while flirting and ad-libbing with any man within range. Perhaps the cleverest ditty in the bunch is "Pour Me a Man," in which Barton mixes liquor and men into a cocktail of hilarity ("I almost got a concussion/Choking down my first White Russian"). And, of course, the capper is "Bring me another, and make it a stiff one!"

The dialogue is equally amusing, with Almira observing, "Lovers are like dentures: You don't want 'em in your mouth all night, but you want 'em at arm's length in the morning." But it's not all played for laughs. There are a couple of tender moments when the audience is encouraged to share Miss G's pain. This is tenderly expressed in a misty ballad that asks the plaintive question, "When everyone worth taking was taken, where were you?"

This one-hag show is clearly juicy material for any actor to sink his fangs into, and Nickolas L. Vannello is at his best when he's playing off the energetically supportive audience reactions. Vannello sells all the songs as well as he can, given a voice that often goes flat as a Kansas prairie. He also doesn't quite exude the nasty edge and fluidly intimate style this character demands.

Still, Miss Gulch is a load of laughs. It's just too bad there isn't at least one Hamiltonish piercing cackle or one snarly ". . . And your little dog, too." But there are other riches aplenty in this musical tribute to the mother of all harpies.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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