Full disclosure: Almost 15 years ago, I fell in love with another theatrical tour de force penned by Julien Nitzberg, the writer, lyricist and director of For the Love of a Glove, running now at the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan theater in L.A.’s Echo Park. That show, The Beastly Bombing, was an operetta about would-be terrorists (yes, operetta) and so brilliantly inventive and funny I returned to the theater the next day to offer my meager talents to the production as a volunteer. I was not a born assistant propmaster, but the effort was well worth it. I never tired of watching the show night after night because Julien’s lyrics were incredibly witty and each time I heard them, I appreciated some bit of wordplay I had somehow missed before.
When I was first told about For the Love of a Glove by one of the producers, Betsy Zajko, I knew it was going to be hysterical, edgy and astute because Julien is all of those things; plus the premise is pretty much genius. Five alien brothers from a funky musical planet crash-land in Gary, Indiana in 1968, and are saved by none other than Jermaine and Michael Jackson, very much pre-fame and pre-talent. The boys’ singing and dancing abilities come as a direct result of these glove-shaped aliens, who feed on the brothers’ blood and in so doing transfer their musical gifts back onto them. (Spoiler-alert-but-not-really: the gifting of tuneful skills works only if their prey are young male virgins.)
In lesser hands, this could have all gone terribly wrong, but I’m happy to report that Glove goes terribly right. It’s a risky business to create a new mythology out of several pre-existing ones. No matter how much we wanted to believe Michael’s extraordinary talent somehow made the allegations against him suspect, the documentary Finding Neverland relieved that scenario of any shred of plausible deniability. One might have also worried that the incontrovertible testimony of the molested young men could drain Glove of its comic potential, but the show is hilarious. Michael Jackson’s actual trajectory was already so weird and improbable that Nitzberg’s imagined origin story feels as much like a hypothesis as a fantasy. The show has the odd but comforting effect of lifting for a few hours the cringe we have come to unavoidably feel thinking of the King of Pop (at least for someone like yours truly, born exactly one month after Jackson.)
That such theatrical legerdemain works without the actual music of Michael Jackson speaks volumes about the composers. Drew Erickson, Nicole Morier and Max Townsley wrote a score that is part homage, part parody, and all ear-wormy. One ballad, “True Love” is as sweet as “You’ve Got to Be There,” and doubles as an anthem for the delicious thematic twist near the end that you won’t see coming (pun intended) but should.
Props must be given to the, er, props, ergo the puppet designers — Robin Walsh, Ron Binion, and Adrian Rose Leonard. Their creations are strapped to the actors who play them, as are the googley-eyed alien gloves. The quasi-ventriloquists are allowed to emote, thank God, and the acting is uniformly delightful. Standouts are Eric B. Anthony as Michael Jackson and Jackson’s glove, played by Jerry Minor. Suzanne Nichols renders Katherine Jackson’s matriarchal force with empathy and an awesome voice, and Berry Gordy wishes he was half as good-looking as Daniel Mills. I am loathe to leave out the rest; suffice to say casting director Victoria Hoffman is very, very good at her job.
Among the show’s sharper conceits is paralleling the Jackson/Osmond rivalry to that between Mozart and Salieri — if one of them had been Jehovah’s Witness and the other Mormon. (Reputedly, Osmond has a good sense of humor, and wouldn’t take it too personally — he was after all, no more in control of his early career than Michael.) The appropriation of black music by white entertainers is one of many politico-cultural barbs Nitzberg pulls off without being heavy-handed, including an opening number about Indiana’s hooded history that starts the show off hysterikkkally.
For the Love of a Glove is playing at the Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan Theater in Echo Park through March 8th, and you should “beat it” there immediately. After all, how many times in life do you get to see a musical with a song that rhymes “victim” and “dictum?” For that alone, it should go to Broadway.