by Bret Fetzer

It Ain't Nothing But the Blues

Seattle Repertory Theatre

Through May 8.

Cowboy Mouth

Rendezvous Jewel Box Theater

Through May 8.

Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens


Through May 8.

Honk! The Ugly Ducking Musical


Through May 1.

Midway through It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, I had to wonder: What kind of soulless bureaucrat would stage a revue of vibrant, enthralling, and above all, rhythmic songs in a venue where everyone has to stay seated? The first act of the show sprawled across the wide array of music--African chants, Appalachian folk songs, slave spirituals, country tunes--that fed into the blues, one of the truly American musical idioms. Though this structure is a bit academic-minded, the exuberant actors kept the show ripping along. In the second act they kicked into some truly roof-shaking, Chicago-style blues songs, rife with sex and gritty soul. After the raucous "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man" and the sultry "Sidewinder," I was ready to leap up and dance in the aisles.

But the rest of the second act lost focus, trying to shoehorn well-known songs like "Walking After Midnight" and "Fever" into the blues tradition--these are fine songs, but they paled in comparison with what we'd already heard. The show's tone grew increasingly glossy and began to smack of marketing, of pandering to as many people as possible no matter how much that waters down the experience. Most of It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues is enormously enjoyable, but it's also one step down the road to an animatronic diorama where the blues will have no more life than the faux-Polynesian shanties sung by parrots in the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland.

As I settled into a padded booth in the intimate Jewel Box Theater, I had to ask myself: Who on earth would want to revive Cowboy Mouth, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith's semi-autobiographical sort-of rock musical? Who would want to play two shambling narcissists whining about how they aren't rock stars, vacillating between boredom and mania, beating on each other and then making up like a pair of married alcoholics? Apparently, the answer is people who have no idea what they're doing. The hapless actors were directed to scream and paw each other in a gruesome, repetitive aping of passion. At least the backup band seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I thought Cowboy Mouth was the worst thing I could see this weekend. I was wrong. As a cold metal folding chair at Re-bar slowly cut off the circulation in my ass, I pondered: Who is Willie Levasseur, and why is he inflicting his adolescent wish-fulfillment upon this poor, unsuspecting world? As the producer, director, and star, Levasseur must take the blame for Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, a lifeless piece of karaoke masquerading as a campy sex farce. The other actors are guilty of bad judgment for agreeing to perform in this flop, but every second they spend on stage is punishment enough. Levasseur made me want to kick him. Playing an interstellar bar owner and serial murderer, he slouched across the stage in what he presumably thought was a sexy, predatory lope. He attacked every song, blithely flattening any note that defied his straining voice. Egomania oozed from him like sweat. After a lifetime of clumsy, relentless innuendo and staggeringly inept dance moves, Saucy Jack had at least five false endings, each one more taunting and cruel than the last.

As I stepped from the ArtsWest lobby into the brisk night air, I mused: A musical version of The Ugly Duckling sounds like cloying treacle; why was Honk! so thoroughly charming? The costumes were a start: The ducks, geese, fish, frogs, etc., all wear human outfits that wittily suggest the colors and patterns of their feathers, scales, or skin. Deft physicality contributed; the actors used small, well-chosen gestures that neatly evoked both human and animal behavior. All of this was in service of an enjoyably silly script, lovely melodies, and clever rhymes. Honk! has its weaknesses--it's too long (after the ugly duckling leaves his home, his travels in the world drag a bit) and it seems as if ArtsWest ran out of rehearsal time, as the second act of the play lacks the precision and detail of the first--but compared to the gross excesses of what else I saw this weekend, these are but quibbles. There's some real substance here: a genuine, satisfying fusion of story and song. This is Honk!'s last weekend; give this ugly duckling the chance to show you a swan.