At the end of Hip Pocket Theatre's current show, which closes the 36th season of this wildly, wonderfully innovative troupe, cast members Johnny Simons, Julie Ballew and Gracey Tune jive walk off the stage in the old 1960s truckin' posture.
Hip Pocket fans interpret this as assurance that Simons and friends will keep on truckin' back to their outdoor stage in far west Fort Worth next June for Season 37. There have been rumors that this year will mark the valedictory performance by Simons, who's in his 70s. (Although those rumors were around when Simons and his daughters Lake and Lorca did Trio Molemo! in 2007.)
Down to business: You still have one more weekend to savor Season 36 with Solo Molemo! and the Long Tall Sallys! Molemo is one of Simons' alter egos, so naturally he plays that role. The Sallys are long, tall, alluring Gracey Tune and Julie Ballew. (The former's brother—long, tall and legendary Tony-winning Tommy Tune—was in the front section leading the bravos at Sunday's performance on opening weekend; and it's rumored that puppeteer Basil Twist, a fan of Simons, will be in town for the second weekend.)
Simons, who also directed, describes this show as "a musical pastiche of pantomime, song and dance." The purest mime moments come from him, alternately limber-limbed and bow-legged, per the characterization of the moment. Tune steps occasionally into a signature tap shuffle. Ballew leans toward ballet, her longtime forte, shading each spin and flourish with elegant sex appeal.
The music is recorded and visits various eras and idioms from Little Richard to Beethoven, with Massenet tossed in for good measure. One poignant sequence features 1990 footage of Hip Pocket co-founder Douglas Balentine, Simons' longtime collaborator who died suddenly several years ago. In another haunting moment, white-masked Ballew and Tune preside over the awakening/rebirth of a sleeping (or dead) Simons while a solo piano plays "Moonlight Sonata." And a wistful "Old and Lost River" revisits a long-ago Simons-Balentine show.
But mostly, these short musical vignettes (each lasting the length of one song) are strictly for fun. Patti Page's 1950s pop hit, "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window," features Simons with twinkling eyes and impish grin, with a picture frame standing in for the pet shop window. It's cute without being cloying. On the wilder side, the threesome dances to "Rag, Mama, Rag" and, of course, "Long, Tall Sally."
The music, incidentally, is not confined to the performance. Live singers and musicians are featured on the nearby Backyard outdoor stage before and after the show.
In her costume designer mode, producer Diane Simons puts Johnny in snug jeans and a pair of floppy hats: one an outdoorsy canvas number, the other black velvet and more refined. Tune is lithe and leggy in black slacks, while Ballew sports assorted variation of ballet tights, accented with the occasional suggestion of a tutu.
This single-act experience is short, sweet and utterly captivating. Following the curtain calls after opening night on Friday, a young couple took the stage and starting slow-dancing. How not? It was a totally natural response.
May I cut in?