The term “multidisciplinary” hardly suffices for Phoebe Legere. The singer, songwriter, actor, writer, dancer, painter et al. can’t be slotted into any one creative cubbyhole. Her new musical Speed Queen: Sex, Speed and High Society – The Joe Carstairs Story is similarly all over the place: rooted in a fascinating early-20th-century story, full of good period-style original songs and great singing, and laced with moments of zingy comedy and aching pathos, but plagued by wildly uneven pacing, laborious exposition, and a mostly slapdash production.
Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs – cross-dressing lesbian oil heiress, speedboat racing champion, high-society player, lover of movie stars – would be a great subject for a full-fledged musical. But until near Speed Queen‘s end, Legere’s portrayal lacks the multidimensionality or imaginative force Carstairs’ one-of-a-kind eccentricity and fascinating life would seem to demand. This Joe is a cartoonish showboater without real depth. Worse, halfway through Act I the show interrupts Carstairs’ story with drawn-out, momentum-killing diversions, portraying three well-known figures of the times and of the Parisian salons the heiress frequented.
Dolly Wilde (Oscar Wilde’s niece), an early flame of Carstairs’, has a terribly overdone monologue and song bewailing the horrors of the World War I battlefield – “Mother Earth, what have we done?” – that plays like a campy parody but is seemingly delivered with serious intent. We get a tiresome lecture in cultural history from salon host Natalie Barry, another interesting personality but here rendered as a tepid variant of Vivian Leigh’s Blanche DuBois. And this version of Tallulah Bankhead spends interminable minutes in excruciating preening before getting to her amusing, if irrelevant, musical number about Bette Davis (“Bitch Stole My Look”).
Legere might have taken more to heart the wise admonition she has Bankhead deliver: “The secret to drama is conflict.” Nonetheless there are numerous bright spots, like Barry singing Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” in ancient Greek, and the camp spectacle of Joe racing in her speedboat suspended from the rafters.
The pace and intensity pick up quite a bit in the shorter second act, when the show turns away from history lessons and toward drama. Joe buys a Caribbean island for herself and her faithful companion, a stuffed leather doll called Lord Tod Wadley, but is devastated when her girlfriend Ruth Baldwin commits suicide after Joe’s affair with Marlene Dietrich (who gives us a smoking musical number). The songs in Act II, more fully realized, show to greater effect Legere’s crafty absorption of the musical styles of the period. Her voice is in fine form, her pianistic and compositional talents vividly on display.
It’s too bad the show dilutes her abilities with lecturing and one-note characterizations. It might engage avidly curious college sophomores, as it does give us enough of Joe Carstairs to whet one’s appetite for her life and times. And it leaves no doubt of Legere’s ambition for the show and love for her subject. Directed in scattershot style by Lissa Morra (who does a more polished job with the lighting) and featuring an effective David Zen Mansley in a number of tiny supporting roles, it runs at Dixon Place through March 24. Tickets are available online.