Rita Sophia Adelina Donatella Zeitz. Try cramming all that onto a marquee.
If, however, you actually happen to be Rita (Donna Vivino), that string of names becomes a sort of brassy fanfare, announcing your fabulous self. When we first see Rita at the top of the new one-woman musical Waiting for Johnny Depp (now playing at the Rave Theater Festival), she is in remarkably high spirits. “This is the greatest day of my entire life!,” she marvels to the audience.
After years of chasing her dream of being a working actor, Rita has finally hit it big. Or so it seems. She has auditioned for a major motion picture and, shock of the ages, has actually been cast as the female lead—opposite the intriguing Mr. Depp, no less. Throwing caution to the wind, Rita does what she has long dreamed of doing. She quits her lab-technician day job. For good measure, she tells off her boss. “Destiny is calling,” she sings victoriously. “And besides, you have B.O.”
If you start a show with the protagonist at the zenith of happiness, it’s only a matter of time before complications will ensue—and Rita doesn’t have to wait very long. Before her euphoria has evaporated even slightly, she receives a call from her agent with the first in a succession of caveats: she needs to lose 20 pounds before filming begins. Then she’s advised to lose her New York accent. Before long, the role has been rewritten, and she’s maybe too girly for the new approach, so it’s time to shear her long coils of extravagant hair.
On and on it goes. There’s no advance money from the film company, and Rita is quickly running out of rent money, so she turns to Craigslist in order to sell some stuff. Just how low can she go? Wait, why did the lights just go off?
What’s best about Waiting for Johnny Depp is Vivino’s performance. My, does she ever get a workout during the play’s 100-minute running time. She has 15 or so musical numbers (some of them reprises), ranging from dizzyingly ecstatic to utterly despondent. She belts, rocks out, sings pretty during the ballads. She carries nearly all of the spoken word, too, though sometimes she has exchanges with the recorded voice of Rita’s highly disagreeable mother. The ghastly ringtone whenever Mom (or that agent with his caveats) calls is like a bugle blast at the gates of hell. (Sound designer Tom Valdez gets a bit of a workout too.) Vivino bounces around the stage, executes choreographer Juson Williams’ dance steps, goes offstage for quick costume and wig changes, and interacts with both the audience and musical director/pianist Logan Medland.
The tricky thing about Rita is that she must be both admirably dedicated to her career and annoyingly self-centered, to the point of self-delusion. Librettists Janet Cole Valdez and Deedee O’Malley (who have noted that the show is based on real-life events) and director Holly Friedman do a good job of managing that balancing act. Or they do so until the unsatisfying denouement which, perhaps inadvertently, suggests that if you endure plenty of heartache and guilt and somehow tap into your humility and humanity for a spell, you just might get the unexpected magical reversal that will let you go back to being the self-absorbed pill you never quite stopped being.
Valdez and O’Malley also wrote the songs, with assistance from composer/arranger Bettie Ross. Some of the lyrics are quite good. The writers have aimed for precision in rhyming, and sometimes add clever internal rhymes. “Anything for My Art” is an especially appealing number, lyrically speaking—to wit:
I faked a love affair
Jogged to Delaware
Ate my underwear
To play the part
I slept out on the street
Dined on turtle feet
Crashed a bridal suite
To serve my art
The show’s music, on the other hand, is not especially memorable. There are plenty of familiar-sounding hooks but nothing much in the way of sweeping melody. Fortunately, Vivino has the talent to make even less-than-grand melodies pleasing to the ear.
Because Waiting for Johnny Depp is part of a theater festival, the technical elements are suitably simple. Michael O’Malley’s set depicts Rita’s kitschily decorated apartment (furnishings of which gradually disappear during her Craigslist phase). Lighting designer Ezra Fischer occasionally bathes the stage in a softer light than usual, in moments when Rita goes into an “I. AM. AN. ACTOR.” reverie.
This musical is a bit long for an intermission-less one-hander. Shaving, say, 15 minutes or so from the running time wouldn’t be a bad idea. Perhaps shortening the introspective ballad “This Time”—or at least whittling its reprise down to a few bars played by Medland—would be a good place to start.
Waiting for Johnny Depp (through August 25, 2019)
The Rave Theater Festival, K.I.S.S. Theatricals and Mary Alice Walsh
Teatro Sea at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.ravetheaterfestival.com
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission