WINTER PARK – Normally when a theatrical production has a shocking or traumatic scene, it comes at the very end – the carefully staged climax, you could call it, like Willie Loman’s suicide at the end of the American theater classic “Death of a Salesman.”
It’s a bit more eye-opening when a show like “Hooked,” the new rock musical being produced at the GOAT auditorium in Winter Park, opens with a doozie. Ben is in a British nightclub, frantically snorting cocaine, while the erotic dancers do their best to keep him entertained by serving liquor and dancing with not much on.
The production opens inside the sleazy Ruby Lounge in England, where the women perform a great opening number, “The Train is Ready to Roll.” At the same time, the club’s rather shifty manager, Parnell, appears only to eager to ply the innocent-looking Ben with as much booze and coke as he wants, and you begin to wonder what his motives are, since his actions are so excessive you doubt he simply wants to be the life of the party.
I don’t know about you, but I think when you’ve got an exotic and racy setting, a toe-tapping rock number, scantily-clad strippers who also happen to be first rate singers, and a sinister-looking villain lurking in the background, you have the makings for one heck of a show. Ben, sitting at his table doing lines of coke, is almost like window dressing at this point.
And then – wham. Ben slumps over in a cocaine overdose. The dancers and Parnell break into a panic, frantically crowding around Ben, and then —
They simply freeze. Motionless, like statues, they make not a single move as Ben looks up and talks directly to the audience. A fairly tawdry and depressing scene, he admits, as he then offers to guide the audience backwards, to show how a successful businessman with a loving girlfriend back home got to this horrific place.
I’m not giving away much by revealing all this – it happens within the show’s first few minutes, all with the speed of lightning and all pretty mesmerizing. And, yes, at that moment, the audience truly is … hooked. I know I was.
And from there? Not always on a path you might have predicted, particularly in the show’s second act, which after the highly charged opening is surprisingly subdued and melancholy.
“Hooked” is a British rock musical making its official U.S. premiere here in Greater Orlando, and as the play’s director, Travis Eaton, noted in the playbill, “Our story takes us down the path of Ben’s addictions and the repercussions thereof: sex, drugs and money. When I first read the script, it struck a chord with me. Everyone is addicted to something.”
As the play demonstrates, living on the edge has dire consequences — certainly that’s true for Ben, who comes across as a basically nice, decent guy who falls voerboard. Is it all because he finds it impossible to settle down into a quiet, pleasant, probably boring existence at home with his girlfriend Emma?
There’s no question he’s increasingly drawn to the wild side at the Ruby Lounge, where at first the beautiful dancers, the drinks and the drugs are enough to satisfy Ben. But Ben really starts falling into dangerous territory when he becomes attracted to one of the dancers, Monique, who is a poor immigrant from Romania who speaks broken English, and is being abused by Parnell. When she complains to him that he hasn’t paid her in three weeks and she can’t afford to buy food, he has a snappy answer: cocaine. Try more drugs, he insists, and she’ll feel so much better.
Does all this work? Considering that Hollywood was tackling addiction back in the 1940s when Ray Milland was drinking to excess in “The Long Weekend,” do today’s studies of addiction mostly seem aimed at breaking any taboos that the censors prohibited the movies from tackling generations ago? As I noted earlier, to my surprise “Hooked” almost seems more old-fashioned than tabloid in its depiction of the consequences of addiction, particularly in the second act, when Emma makes a last ditch effort to rescue her relationship with Ben. Would it surprise you to know there are gentle songs that almost feel … well, sentimental …. in the show?
“Hooked” is a good if not phenomenal show, where the songs are better than the script, and the setting in England becomes a bit of an annoyance since the actors struggle at times to maintain their accents. It might have made more sense to transplant the setting to the U.S. and skip the accent struggles altogether.
But it’s also a highly charged musical that keeps you gripped, helped enormously by a gifted cast that includes Erin Brenna as the abused and beleaguered Monique, Adam Delmedico as the everyman who believably falls into the perils of addiction, and in particular Stephen Pugh, who is wonderfully loathsome as the nasty club manager.
The show is being performed at GOAT at 2431 Aloma Ave. in Winter Park. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased by calling 407-872-8451 or logging on to goatgroup.org. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, through Sept. 16.
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