With apologies to the late, great Bette Davis, fasten your seatbelts. Off the Wall Theatre's production of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" means we're in for some campy nights.
OTW's upcoming production is Dale Gutzman's stage adaptation of the 1962 Robert Aldrich film, the first of the short-lived "psycho-biddy" genre. The Bette Davis/Joan Crawford-inspired vehicle, which opens Oct. 27, replaces Gutzman's previously scheduled production of "The Rocky Horror Show." It is one of two "dueling hags" productions scheduled for Milwaukee's Halloween theater season.
"I decided not to do 'Rocky' this time because I couldn’t find the musical director I wanted for the show," Gutzman says. "I wanted something equally kinky, corny and camp and found 'Baby Jane' waiting in the wings."
Gutzman has upped the production's campiness by not only making his "Baby Jane" a drag show, but also allowing lead performers Mark Hagen and Jeremy Welter to switch back and forth between the Davis and Crawford characters in alternating productions.
"It's a gimmick, but it's a fun gimmick," Gutzman admits. "Both of our boys are chomping at the bit to play the over-the-top Jane and the sweet and innocent Blanche. And both have special fans who want to see them in either one role or the other."
The story, for those who missed the black-and-white film, involves child vaudeville performer (and spoiled brat) Jane Hudson (the Davis character) and her jealous sister Blanche (played by Crawford), who watches from the wings as her sister's star ascends. Later, as adults in 1930s Hollywood, the roles have reversed. Blanche is now a successful, glamorous movie star and Jane is a hard-drinking has-been.
A car accident changes things again. By the 1960s, both sisters are living together in seedy anonymity, with Blanche confined to a wheelchair and at the mercy of a spiteful Jane. And that's when the claws really come out.
"I think what makes the relationship work are the small touches of tenderness mixed in with the fighting and the horror," Gutzman says. OTW's scenario, which remains as true as possible to the film and its 1960s milieu, further employs the old theatrical trick of having the actors merge with the characters to give the production greater depth. Hagen's and Welter’s role-switching adds an even deeper dimension to Gutzman's show.
"For us it becomes a triple game," he says. "Mark Hagen is Bette Davis as Jane Hudson and Jeremy Welter is Joan Crawford as Blanche Hudson. And then, because they switch, the game doubles again."
Although it requires a great deal more effort in mastering two characters and learning two sets of lines, the approach appeals to both performers says Hagen, an OTW veteran known locally as "Dear Ruthie."
"I've always had a thing for Joan Crawford and have been doing her as part of my drag act for years," says Hagen. "I am enthralled with her beauty, her talent and her odd behavior behind closed doors. But I will say that the role of Baby Jane is so complex and intriguing that any actor would be instantly drawn to it and enthralled by it."
Gutzman says he's been considering the production for a while and decided this year's Halloween season was perfect timing. OTW commits to one gay-themed show each year and, while this technically isn't a gay show, it's one that falls well within the gay community's parameters of interest.
"Female impersonators have been playing Joan and Bette for years and when the actresses teamed up it was like a gift from heaven," he said. "The film was so over-the-top that it just begged for imitation and parody."
Gutzman hopes his production, which includes several midnight shows, will attract a large gay contingent and multiple viewings to get the full effect from both actors. However, the veteran writer/director/producer is skeptical about his audience's allegiance.
"We do a camp parody or a Charles Busch play every few years," Gutzman says. "But lately we’ve had to back off because we found that, although they clamor for more gay art, the gay community has not supported those kinds of endeavors to the degree necessary. Quite frankly, we can make more money doing mainstream musicals."
His skepticism hasn't dampened the showman’s enthusiasm for "Baby Jane," however. He believes this production will succeed based on the strengths of its stars' performances.
"No doubt we run a risk by unleashing two such powerhouse performers in two such iconic roles," Gutzman says. "My role is less of a director and more of a lioness tamer."