Theater has its origins in religious ritual, and pop musicians are often revered as saints in this country, as was reinforced by the death of Jerry Garcia last week. So a play about the rise and fall of a rock star would appear to be a natural. And "The Zalmar Boys," the latest script by Bowman Ensemble artistic director Matthew Ramsay, certainly has a natural, recognizable flow.
Although the Zalmar Boys is a fictitious band, the rungs it climbs in its ascent are almost iconically familiar from real life, or fact-based stage shows such as "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," or Rob Reiner's film parody "This Is Spinal Tap." Ramsay shows us his 1950s band members being interviewed on radio, but the play's mere mention of "The Ed Sullivan Show" or a Life magazine profile is sufficient to suggest how far they've come from their modest, Midwestern origins. This is the stuff of American mythology.
Ramsay has tapped into our collective memory. And that isn't the only clever thing he's done in this, his fifth script to be produced by Bowman and the company's first to be staged at the downtown Everyman Theatre. He's also made good use of the presentational format of rock concerts, incorporating an original score performed in the context of the Zalmar Boys' various concert appearances.
This format is aided by casting actors who are largely credible as rock singers and by giving them live instrumental backup with enough oomph to compensate for a thin moment here or there. As lead singer Don Zalmar, Michael A. Stebbins has a squeaky-clean, Brylcreemed look for the 1950s first act, and the right amount of outrageousness when he makes a comeback as a Mick Jagger clone in the psychedelic 1960s.
His story is narrated by his manager, a smooth operator whose portrayal by Ron Bopst oozed plenty of fake sincerity on opening night but needed more lickety-split slickness. I suspect Ramsay is going for something that falls between Machiavelli and Mephistopheles (that sleaziest of show-biz agents). But Bopst's occasional tentativeness muddies the tone.
Nor is the overall tone of director C. Russell Muth's production always clear. In the 1950s scenes, Stebbins and the actors playing his original band members (Bruce Nelson and Michael Butscher), as well as Lucia Bowes, who plays his bossy girlfriend, give the action the feel of a sendup.
This impression is reinforced by silly song lyrics such as: "Johnny-Joe works at the local Esso station/smell of gas gives him an elation . . ." Not that 1950s doo-wop didn't have its share of silly lyrics, but "The Zalmar Boys" needs to decide whether it wants to comment on an era or re-create it.
When the show moves closer to the present, its tone becomes more serious, as the band is plagued by infidelity, marital breakup and substance abuse. But a seriocomic tone returns when washed-up Zalmar retreats to his hometown and to the care and concern of his goody-two-shoes schoolteacher sister (Dianne Signiski).
In the end, Ramsay appears to be aiming for a satiric commentary on the American Dream. Though hardly new, it's a theme guaranteed to have resonance in a land that worships merchandising.
For this reason -- along with a structure that makes of a virtue of Ramsay's dogged tendency to write episodically -- "The Zalmar Boys" is the most accomplished script I've seen by this young playwright.
I still think Bowman's strength is reinterpreting classics, as it did earlier this season with Buchner's "Woyzeck," or last season with "Love's Labour's Lost." But after so much time and effort devoted to a single aspiring playwright, it's reassuring to see progress being made.
'THE ZALMAR BOYS'
Who: Bowman Ensemble
Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Aug. 20; through Aug. 26
$ Call: (410) 889-0406