From rock bottom to rock musical
By Lee Ann Westover
Last Thursday night, The Village Theater took on a character more like the Back Fence at happy hour than that of an off-Broadway venue. Men in pleated Dockers mingled with Village eccentrics and hipsters. As the lights dimmed, the Replacements CD was turned down, and The Knockout Drops came into view one by one, each under their own spotlight, for the opening night of Escape from Bellevue and Other Stories.
The show was born out of the Knockout Drops live concerts. In between songs, frontman Christopher John Campion would weave wild tales of his ten-plus years on the road most of which were spent seriously addicted to drugs and alcohol. He hit such lows, suicide threats landed him in Bellevue hospital three times. On one of those occasions, Campion claims to have turned incarceration into a brief sojourn by escaping
right out the front door. With oodles of personal charm and obvious musical skill, Campion and the Drops have turned these irresponsible, unfortunate years into a hilarious set of monologues performed by Campion alone, interspersed with the bands power-rock songs inspired by the events.
Chris Campion excels as the shows main character and its supporting cast. Playing himself in the present day, he is a picture of pride, sporting a sleek black suit with a pink shirt and pocket square. His rock-and-roll shag slightly obscures his good-humored, squinty eyes, and an affable grin is Campions default expression while outlining his life story to the audience. All that melts away when he puts on the mantle of star Bellevue inmate Dribbly, a man with standard issue crazy eyes who perpetually dribbles an invisible basketball through the mental wards common areas. His portrayal of a gravel-voiced entertainment booker of a Long Island Howard Johnsons stands out as well. He enthusiastically warns Campion off booze at an early age (You look like a young Eddie Money) before asking, Anybody got any blow?
In 2005, Escape from Bellevue enjoyed a 13-week run at Manhattans Paradise Factory Theatre. That productions D.I.Y. charm has been updated by sleek sets and a few big names. Set designer Cameron Anderson places the band among steel girders and filthy windows, reminiscent of the SNL stage from the late 1980s. David Weiner (lighting design), Jake Pinholster (video) and Chris Cassidy (projection design) enabled the construction to be completely malleable while following Campion through his tangential tales. One minute we peer into a Bellevue haunted by darting shadows; the next we find ourselves front row at Irving Plaza as the spotlights flash like fireworks. The executive producers of Westbeth Entertainment clearly have a line on quirky theater. Their off-Broadway credits include Kiki & Herb: Coup de Théatre and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Artistic director Alex Timbers rounds out the bunch with a long list of credits and a slew of awards (an OBIE among them).
Even with all its magnetism, the show has a few uncomfortable holes. Its a little strange that Campion doesnt cop to the seriousness of his suicide threats. Mystified at his friends concern, he blows them off as if he had just announced that he was leaving a party. Campion also ties things up a bit too neatly at the end. After years and years of being shackled to his addictions, one revelation releases him from all his problems in a few seconds. Its true that he is brave to get up on stage and share his colorful low points with all of us, but we dont really get much of a window into the inner processes that drove both the descent and the healing. Campion has signed a deal with Penguin, however, so perhaps well get more insight when the book comes out.
Despite these flaws, Campion still shines in the production. He will leave you laughing at his breakneck journey to the bottom, and inspired by the powerful personality that now seems so far from the never-ending Fellini movie of Bellevues mental wards.