LA Times - A rock opera in 'Pill' form

The 'Southern Gothic' tells a story, but the staging, songs and dances are what dazzle the senses.

June 23, 2006

If Flannery O'Connor and Bob Fosse joined Creedence Clearwater Revival on a road trip, the results might resemble "Taking the Jesus Pill" at King King in Hollywood. Charlie Terrell's multimedia Southern Gothic extravaganza receives a sensational staging that defies categorization.

We enter the high-ceilinged venue, its bar hung with Tao symbols, a Buddha perched over the bathroom, to mingle with scantily clad tarts and frock-coated musicians who suggest refugees from "Cabaret." After director Joe Peracchio revs up the crowd, a film projection of the Mighty Revelators gospel quartet hits the upstage wall, where strippers gyrate behind a scrim in a surreal prologue.This introduces half-masked heroine Tina (the fearless Nikki McCauley), bereft at a mirror that descends from the flies to a center platform in front of the scrim, just as sleazy boss Ratchet Palamino (Peracchio) orders her onstage. Then, with a blast from the roof-rattling Mojo Monkeys - Dave Raven (drums), Billy Watts (guitar), Phil Parlapiano (keyboard) and Taras Prodaniuk (bass) - the dressing room table becomes a car driven by hero Johnny 3:16 (a galvanic Brandon Karrer).

As he tells a hitchhiker, Singer (creator Terrell, tremendous), the leather-jacketed Johnny is heading home. Singer hands him a gun, enigmatically saying, "Ask your mama about the lamb - she'll know." A title card dropkicks us back one year earlier. And "Jesus Pill" proceeds like firecrackers pitched into a snake handler's tent meeting.

With Singer performing the songs as a Greek chorus, Tina and Johnny's allegory of revenge and redemption unfolds in vignettes that incorporate the entire King King club. The narrative turns on a secret held by Johnny's mother, Nadine (Lisa Robert), a chain-smoking harridan in a wheelchair. She looks downright saintly set against Tina's evangelist parents, Josephine (Irene Muzzy) and Preacher (the amazing Michael Childers), whose blasphemous hucksterism provides "Jesus Pill" with its most electrifying moments.

Terrell first conceived this phantasmagoria as an album, and his eclectic, heart-pounding numbers advance the pulpy plot while retaining their individual value.

Peracchio's inventive direction elevates the concept, peaking at the revival sequences (featuring a frolicsome passel of freaks) and Preacher and Johnny's scriptural face-off on the bar.

The cast is valiant, with all the principals displaying total commitment, and the dancers (Renee Schuda, Mariah Perkins, May Har Li and Lisa Reyrnes) tackle R.J. Durrell's choreography with elastic spinal columns. The designs are choice, particularly Jason Mullen's astonishing lighting, Mary McIlwain's iconic costumes and the fabulous projections by author Terrell and Brandon Terrell.

Savage yet sincere and uniquely Angeleno, "Taking the Jesus Pill" is the most subversively entertaining show in town. Heartland rockers and adventurous theatergoers alike should be enraptured.