Herringbone is a theatrical oddity. It’s a musical about a schizophrenic with eleven characters all performed by one actor. It was first produced in 1982 Off Broadway with the actor David Rounds. Joel Grey later revived it. B. D. Wong has done the show three times (each time differently, he claims) and brings his latest version to the La Jolla Playhouse, directed brilliantly by Roger Rees.
The musical is a Gothic tour-de-force based on a play by Tom Cone, who also wrote the book for the musical. The music is by Skip Kennon with very imaginative lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. I saw the first production and was admittedly puzzled by the whole affair. Now older and one hopes wiser, I was thoroughly entranced by this odd little show.
The story is set in the Depression and is about an eight-year-old boy who suddenly finds himself possessed by the spirit of “Frog”, part of a vaudeville act “Chicken and Frog”. “Frog” is ambitious for fame and to live his live fully, having been cut off in his prime, and he puts poor little George Herringbone through the ringer to get what he wants, including murder, a one-night stand, and endless tap dancing. George eventually puts a halt to the proceedings by threatening suicide (a wonderfully suspenseful scene as directed by Rees).
Wong is wonderful playing all eleven parts, changing ages, sexes, and demeanor with simple choices that impress us with his versatility. One can see why this piece would be of interest to an actor who can sing and dance and act, the so-called triple threat. It’s also a marvelously twisted, funny, and sometimes scary piece.
I was quite taken by the oddness of the songs, which had a way of sneaking up on me. They were wonderfully written, not in a tuneful or memorable way, but in a way that furthered the story and character development. The lyrics were clever and perfect for the character.
Rees has done a truly masterful job of helping Wong bring this to life. He is proving himself to be one of the best directors around, having impressed earlier in the season with Peter and The Starcatchers, a play about the events before the Peter Pan story. His experience in that seminal theatrical masterpiece Nicholas Nickleby, which used transformations and suggestive movements, has served him well (he played Nicholas).
Herringbone plays at the until August 30. Catch it if you can, because it’s a singular, rarely performed gem.