A symphony of camp done just right, the musical Bedbugs!!! marshals over-the-top phantasmagoria in the service of a narrative that makes emotional (though not remotely logical) sense. A well-paced story rests on a foundation of brilliantly arranged songs inspired by ’80s rock and brought to life by electrically funny choreography featuring, among other amusements, an itching sequence. It’s an evening of zany, scary, laugh-out-loud fun.
Think Rocky Horror with better music. Think Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Think Little Shop of Horrors. Think the twisted family dynamics of John Waters movies. Throw in an homage to Fiddler on the Roof‘s dream sequence. Bedbugs!!! merits all its exclamation points. It’s a big spectacle that colors outside the lines but never gets out of control. It does, however, almost spill beyond the confines of the ArcLight Theatre. Director and choreographer Robert Bartley squeezes set and action out of every angle and corner that he can, to the point where the biggest production numbers, like the Act I finale, become almost immersive and an audience member might even miss some of the action.
Too much of a good thing is a good problem to have, and the impressive cast is entirely up to the creative team’s wild vision of an onslaught of intelligent, human-sized, mutant bedbugs engendered by a mad-scientist exterminator named Carly, played by the spectacular-voiced Grace McLean, who is driven to dangerous anti-bedbug chemistry by the childhood trauma of the bedbug-related death of her mother (a scarily effective Gretchen Wylder).
Carly’s morally conflicted younger brother and lab assistant (a clarion-voiced Nicholas Park) recoils at the crazed lengths Carly goes to, but is helpless to stop the assault by the monstrous bedbugs and their charismatic leader, played with terrifying presence by Chris Hall. Clicking and shrieking and killing and pursuing their bloody mating activities, the bugs are outfitted in deliciously dreadful costumes designed by Philip Heckman.
Linked to the story of the bedbug apocalypse is another kind of terror: a big comeback concert by a Celine Dion figure subtly named Dionne Salon, played with the perfect balance of passion and (literal) cheese by Brian Charles Rooney, who brings yet another fabulous voice to the production, and manipulated by her scheming husband (a very funny Danny Bolero). (Not being well-versed in the oeuvre of the French-Canadian diva, I had to have some of the Celine Dion jokes explained to me after the fact.)
A long-ago TV appearance by the singer figures into Carly’s motivation, and so, of course, this being musical theater and not real life, their fates are personally intertwined as well. Suffice it to say that the big musical climax, “I Love to Love to Love You” (its very title embodying the excess that gives this show its oomph) provides all the diva payoff one could wish for, in addition to the final confrontation between man and bug, between love and death, and between Carly’s good and evil sides.
“Good” and “evil” here, as sometimes in the real world, are simplistic ways of categorizing the different sides of human nature, and McLean as Carly expresses this inner conflict in every one of her scenes. She has star quality to spare in both voice and presence. So does the show, which deserves a bigger theater with room for all of its frenzied, blood-sucking energy.
Bedbugs!!! runs through October 26 at the ArcLight Theatre, 152 West 71 St., New York City.