The music is brilliant. The singing is brilliant. And the mythology is incomprehensible.

Lulu Noire

American Music Theater Festival, last week at WHYY Forum Theater.

Playwright, director, and Mabou Mines co-founder Lee Breuer has made a minor specialty of appropriating popular musical idioms for dramatic purposes: doo-wop for Sister Suzie Cinema, Caribbean steel drum for The Warrior Ant, and, brilliantly, gospel singing for his adaptation (with composer Bob Telson) of Sophocles, Gospel at Colonnus.

This time the idiom is jazz, Breuer's collaborator is trumpeter Jon Faddis and his source texts are Frank Wedekind's two plays, Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora's Box (1904), about the femme fatale Lulu and her entourage of admirers, pimps, patrons, clients and husbands, including (among others) a portrait painter of uncertain sexuality, a father and son, and a lesbian countess.

Lulu Noire, which just completed a short run at the Forum Theater at WHYY after its world premiere at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC, is really two music-theater pieces nested inside one another.

The inner play is Lulu transposed to contemporary Brooklyn and Manhattan. Lulu (Stephanie Rice) makes her cabaret debut at the Apollo, the painter is a fashion photographer (Phillip Manuel), the obsessive patron/husband is a wealthy pornographer (Kevin Mahogany) and the countess (Vivian Cherry) is I-don't-know-what. This play is hip, vulgar, witty and rather shapeless (and filled with reprehensible caricatures of Jews and Japanese). It follows the grisly twists and turns of Wedekind's episodes, until, as in the Wedekind plays, the characters have no place to go but murder, suicide, poverty and death.

The music is brilliant. The singing (especially that of Rice and Cherry) is brilliant. But the writing only begins to find its own peculiar sense of humor at the beginning of the second act. (The obsessive stepson [J. D. Steel]: "I'm one miserable motherfucker." Lulu: "I don't find you miserable." The stepson: "What about the motherfucker part?") It's hard to tell whether this was the first scene Breuer and Faddis wrote, when they still found the characters and the concept and the jive amusing, or the last, when they finally got into the swing of things, were growing tired of Wedekind, and were ready to let his characters and plot collapse into an unresolved heap.

Wedekind's plays end with Lulu being eviscerated by Jack the Ripper in a London garret. But by this point, Breuer and Faddis have dropped the plot and let their outer play take over. The outer play is a mystical Afro-Caribbean fable. Schigolch, the character in Wedekind identified by Lulu as her uncle or her stepfather and who is almost certainly her pimp, probably her lover, and quite possibly her father, is here an African drummer-storyteller (played by the famous Nigerian-born drummer Babatunde Olatunji), who summons the ghosts of Lulu's lovers and victims, explains the adaptation's cosmology (something having to do with slaves escaping from Wall Street, swimming to Brooklyn and remaining enslaved by the false consciousness of Capitalism), and drums away as Lulu is danced to death by the spirit of Baron Samedi (Faddis on trumpet). The music is brilliant. The singing is brilliant. Olatunji's drumming is brilliant. Faddis' trumpet licks are brilliant. And the mythology is (even with the help of program notes) incomprehensible.

Gail Levin's intermittent film images (including clips of Josephine Baker and extended sequences from Blow Up, I Want to Live!, Raging Bull and G. W. Pabst's 1928 silent-film version of the Lulu plays, Pandora's Box) are pointless and distracting, and do little to enliven what is essentially a semi-staged jazz oratorio.

-- Cary M. Mazer