Watching Mall*Mart, the Musical! at Curious Theatre Company is almost a schizophrenic experience; the two acts seem part of different productions.
The first act details the life of one Walt Samson, a stand-in for Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, and shows his rise to wealth and prominence, as well as the wreckage he left in his wake. The script is by Joan Holden, longtime writer for the fresh, fearless and funny San Francisco Mime Troupe, but it's uncharacteristically flat, and the acting is execrable. A young woman impersonates an old one using the bent-backed doddering walk we've seen in a hundred high-school productions. Almost everyone sports a ridiculous wig. I think this is director Chip Walton's way of re-creating the hokey, can-do, invention-and-progress-loving, innocently consumerist atmosphere of post-World War II America, but instead it just looks amateurish. Oh, there's some decent music, and the occasional good moment, as when Walt and his wife sing "Ella" together, but that's it.
Then comes a disruption. Protesters unfurl anti-Mall*Mart banners around the stage; a couple of people in business suits respond with alarm. I feel a tiny prickle of interest. Intermission.
Mall*Mart, the Musical!
Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 9, Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org.
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And then something miraculous happens. The script gets lively and clever. The very same performers who'd bored me to tears in act one spring to life, becoming humorous, eccentric, even touching people -- caricatures still, but also real human beings: tired workers, wolfish business execs, a young couple torn apart by the husband's shopaholism. There's telling social commentary, but this is also terrific theater, replete with a slew of great songs by Bruce Barthol (what a kick to know he once performed with Country Joe and the Fish), and the actors even seem to sing better than they did before.
Brad Evans played Samson in the first act, with Jennifer Dunne as his meek wife, Ella. In the second, he's become the boyishly charming Dexter Pigeon, Mall*Mart Customer of the Month. She's Harriet, Dexter's schoolteacher wife, who was driven from her job by creationists because she once showed a picture of dinosaurs in her classroom. An endearingly fuddled but still strong-willed creature, Harriet is forced to take the only job she can get: as an "associate" at Mall*Mart. Through the first part of the evening, I couldn't figure out what they'd done to the talented Megan Van De Hey, who was trotting about the stage herky-jerky and grimacing in a contemptuous parody of small-town folk. But now she comes into her own as slick-smart Lydia Sharper -- and, man, can Van De Hey take over a stage. She's particularly fine during Lydia's song of repentance and resolution: "The Road Not Taken." Michael Morgan is good in a variety of roles. And Marcus Waterman, as the smoothly powerful Howard Kraft, stops the show when he sings "One World, One Market, One Store" to the deft choreography of the University of Colorado's Bud Coleman.
You've heard all the arguments against Wal-Mart -- that in the company's relentless march across the face of the world, it destroys communities, hurts the environment, pays vendors so little for their goods that they're often forced to reduce quality or go out of business, and, most notoriously, provides wages so stingy that workers are forced to depend on taxpayer handouts such as subsidized housing, food stamps and the emergency rooms of public hospitals in order to survive. A 2005 memo sent by Wal-Mart's top human-resources official to the board recommended hiring healthier workers because they were less likely to enroll in the health plan and pointed out that longtime employees cost more than new ones. As a result, wages have been capped, Wal-Mart is using more part-time workers, and employees are required to work any time of the day or night with little notice -- which can make arranging for such things as child care impossible. In the nastiest move of all, several Florida stores have forbidden older workers with back or leg problems to use stools on the job.
Holden makes most of these points and many more, but -- from her affectionate parody of old-hippie stoner bands to her weird AA-style shopaholic support group -- the tone is stylish and good-humored. By the time the defiant ending rolls around, I've lost all my early boredom and am so fired up that I'm ready to pick up a picket sign and go looking for the nearest Wal-Mart.