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THEATER Belle Barth: If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2008-11-19

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Playwright: book by Joanne Koch,

music by Ilya Levinson, lyrics by Owen Kalt

At: Theo Ubique at the

No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood

Phone: 773-347-1109; $20

Runs through: Dec. 21

After Sophie Tucker, but before Rusty Warren ( and LONG before Sarah Silverman ) , Belle Barth asserted the right of women to engage in previously male-dominated bawdy humor—not as the objects of ridicule ( e.g., shrewish wives, airheaded odalisques ) , but as the instigators. During the repressive 1950s, when Lenny Bruce's angry diatribes on social and political attitudes led to arrest and notoriety, Barth's earthy Yiddish-laced observations of male and female sexuality never impeded her popularity—except once.

As authored by Joanna Koch, our biomusical begins just after Barth's disastrous appearance at Carnegie Hall, when she capitulated to the censors, bowdlerizing her ribald material to the scorn of the press and indignation of her fans. Rehearsing her comeback in an empty nightclub to an invisible audience ( that's us, by the way ) , she recounts her rise to success. After disqualifying for a music scholarship, she took a job singing at a summer resort in the Catskills, where her witty comic asides soon eclipsed her vocal prowess. Too risqué for television, Barth's 'adults-only' record albums sold millions, even as a procession of husbands and lovers—all of whom she loved, and many of whom loved her—passed through her life like discarded one-liners.

All right, so this story isn't particularly original ( poor girl makes good, suffers setbacks, triumphs happily ever after ) . Nor is the score by Ilya Levinson and Owen Kalt, though eminently serviceable, far from the where-am-I-going, he-done-me-wrong, and I-will-survive warbles characteristic of its genre. The factors that made a runaway hit of this three-hander ( if you include the pianist ) at the New Tuners Stages workshop last summer was the splendiferous performance of storefront-circuit diva Bethany Thomas in the lead role and, of course, the jokes.

Barth's ribaldry is relatively tame by today's standards. ( 'A vagina is the box that a penis comes in.' ) But at the remount in the No Exit Café, under the direction of Theo Ubique's Fred Anzevino, the leisurely set-up-for-the-punch delivery of the period, along with Thomas' gemütlich presence and razor-sharp phrasing, elevated the mossiest gags ( 'Do they cook any other parts of the matzoth?' ) to a minty freshness that had audiences doubled over with laughter. G'wan—see if you don't chortle at the one about the proctologist and the flowers!


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