Fertile Ground review: Welcome to the Night Side

Smart creative team makes "The Adventures of Dex Dixon: Paranormal Dick" an entertaining ride

by MARIA CHOBAN

Riddle: Who’s in charge of Night Side? That shady town full of werewolves and vampires, creeps and ghouls accessible from our “normal” world only by wily private eyes like Dex Dixon, Manix Marloe and Carl Kolchak, The Night Stalker?

Answer: Why, Frank, the ventriloquist benevolent puppet dictator.

That revelation comes early in Stumptown Stages’ dizzily entertaining new musical about an aging paranormal private eye, premiering at Portland’s Brunish theater as part of Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival. “Filled with puns, guns, vixens, vamps, monsters, music, and mayhem,” the debut run ends today, Sunday, January 31.

Our guide to Night Side, Dex Dixon, is played by Steve Coker, who also wrote the book for The Adventures of Dex Dixon: Paranormal Dick, designed the scenes, shared the task of writing the music and lyrics with K.J. McElrath, acted the part. He is also the artistic director of Stage Works Ink. If that isn’t enough to get him elected mayor of Portland then I’m stumped!

But Coker is only part of an exceptional creative team whose combined efforts made Dex Dixon one of Fertile Ground’s most captivating shows.

Ilya Torres-Garner and Steve Coker in "The Adventures of Dex Dixon." Photo: Mike Lindberg.

Ilya Torres-Garner and Steve Coker in “The Adventures of Dex Dixon.” Photo: Mike Lindberg.

Jaime Langton’s witty choreography flowed seamlessly between those with less dance experience like the Vamps (cute little foot twists in “Surrender”) and Dixon and his trusty sidekick werewolf, Lobo (some sweet soft shoe in “Old Dog, New Tricks”) to the veteran dancer playing Nelly, the dangerous dame who sizzles in “Frisk Me, Dex.” More than just well thought out dance steps was the caricature imparted to the dancers and dances. Sydney Weir’s Nelly captured the pretzeled bodied zombie I’ve never seen in a zombie flick but completely believed. Weir isn’t just a clean crisp dancer, she’s a physical actor imbuing Langton’s choreography with over-the-top personality. She crossed and uncrossed her dangerous-dame legs sleazier than Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. And I mean this in a good way. Two more dance reasons to get you to this show: “The Brainsucker Tango” and the the monster mash between the Weres and the Zombies in “Dex in Danger.”

DD uses a live jazz club quartet prominently displayed visually and aurally. And aural is where the show breaks down. I sat on both sides of the stage and missed about half the lines and even more of the lyrics. Mixing is only partly the reason. A muffled dull speaker system the other. I don’t recall this being an issue in the last musical I saw in this space, or maybe I was so bored by the banal lyrics I tuned out. Dex Dixon, however, is predicated on delicious “Danger Dame At Work” (by Paul Muller) pulp-poetry and puns. Care needs to be given to the audience experience: Are we ALL catching every one of those lines, asides, lyrics?

What song lyrics I caught promised great depth for those I missed. I loved the refrain exchange between Lobo the Werewolf and DD:

Lobo: (to the aging private eye) Old Dog!

Dex:  (bristly) New tricks!

“Any Port in a Storm” got the fairest hearing in part because Danielle Valentine’s voice is so strong. Too bad I missed her opening number. And here’s why. Arriving at 7:10 for a 7:30 show, I stood in line along with at least 20 other people to collect my tickets at Portland5 will call. Ten of us were left waiting outside the entrance to the theater because communication between the main ushers and the box-office broke down, even with walkie-talkies and because they obviously needed more than two windows open on a flippin’ Friday night to handle a flippin’ Friday night crowd at three theaters! I was livid, close to tantrum, nearly tearing up my tickets in front of the ushers and marching home to watch the Trailblazers. Is it so hard to send an usher down to scan the line and report back?

The sound/mix issues are possibly easy to fix on short notice, maybe by turning down the mics on the band and up on the actors. Communication issues ditto. Do not start the show unless an usher from the Brunish physically goes down to the box office to corroborate that no one is standing in line!

The acting is mixed. Illya Torres-Garner’s gleefully over-the-top Horus, the evil Vampire cracked me up, reminding me what might happen if Inigo Montoya hung out with the wrong crowd. Sean Ryan Lamb’s Lobo, the nervous cuddly werewolf, peppered his cats-on-internet hyper cuteness with Brian the Dog wry physical humor. And while I appreciated the low key likeable approach Steve Coker took with his detective, especially his frequent improvised asides to the audience, I felt his Dex Dixon went over too easy. I wanted harder boiled. Or maybe I just needed to hear the lines. Maybe Frank the Benevolent puppet dictator can straighten it all out.

Without giving too much of this show away because I expect it to come back shortly in an extended run, the scene design and props are the stars.  Go for Bill Holznagel’s creation, Frank, the ventriloquist dummy.  Stay for the Chinese dragon costume-like slithering trolls. Take in the simplicity of a bridge between two worlds, with two ladders. I seem to always come to the same conclusion about shows I love:  It comes down to IQ and this is one of the smartest teams I’ve seen in a long time.

The Adventures of Dex Dixon: Paranormal Dick concludes Sunday at 2 pm at Portland’s Brunish Theater.

Portland pianist Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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