Just in time for Pedalpalooza, that annual festival devoted to all things bikey in Portland (and many that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine to be so), The Bicycle Men rolls into town for a three-day spin at Portland’s Winningstad Theatre. Boasting comedy as broad as a cruiser’s fat tire, a plot as thin as those little racing saddles, themes as lightweight as a carbon-frame road bike … well, you get the idea. Although it’s unfortunately not as tight as those spandex cycling pants, though just as padded, Bicycle Men nevertheless takes viewers on a breezy summer comedy ride.
Custom-built by a seven-man (and one woman) peloton of Second City alumni now based in Los Angeles (five of whom appear onstage, including the keyboardist), The Bicycle Men is less a work of cohesive theater and more a thin, er, frame used for hanging a series of skits that feel like they originated in comedy clubs, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The relatively intimate Winningstad is probably the best of the city’s larger theaters to experience it in, but might work even better in a less formal big cabaret club setting.
Co-written by performers Joe Liss and John Rubano, the story, such as it is, presents a familiar set up: a stranger is unexpectedly trapped (here, by a vehicular malfunction) in a foreign place where everyone is weird and inexplicable. While American summer bike tourist Steve waits for his bike to be repaired in a petite French village, he encounters oddball hosteliers, bike repairmen, puppeteers, cabaret performers, even, improbably, an old American (or as Rick Perry would say, Texan) buddy and, ultimately, a mysterious, mythical deity called “L’homme du Bicyclette.”
Each encounter occasions a song (and usually dance) number that often has little to do with the alleged plot, providing opportunities for cranking out mostly clever sendups of obvious stereotypical targets: Texans, Jewish entertainers, Italian crooners, faux décolletage and other semi naughty bits, bike worship, sex, clueless unsophisticated American tourists, snooty French people, white people (a dance number of that title is one of the show’s highlights), and, of course, mimes.
In fact, the show wobbles when struggling to advance its bare-bones plot, picking up speed in its set pieces. Like a cyclist ascending and then descending Mt. Tabor, The Bicycle Men starts off slow and gains impressive momentum in the second half. Trimming the clunkier portions of the first act, as well as the intermission, would have turned an intermittently amusing two-hour evening into a really tight hour-long delight.
Nevertheless, with its charmingly and intentionally low-budget look; some generally funny and occasionally hiliarious songs (especially a devilish existentialist lullabye, a Gilbert & Sullivan/“He’s a Lumberjack” style song called “An Unremarkable Man,” one of several Monty Python-inspired bits, and another about non-gay musical theater performers); tight, compelling musical direction and performance by keyboardist Ryan McCurry; and uniformly engaging performances (especially rubbery Derek Manson, whose singing and dancing really boost the RPMs) by its engaging quartet of actor/singer/dancers, The Bicycle Men surmounts its occasional bumps and wobbles and makes for a mostly smooth, silly summer ride that should play well in bike-besotted Oregon.
Incidentally, anyone interested in bike-related theater, or vice versa, should check out one of Pedalpalooza’s most fun and arts-related rides. Portland’s Working Theatre Collective rolls out its annual bike play — this year’s edition is called Time Cycle — June 18-21.
Portland’5 Centers for the Arts presents The Bicycle Men, June 5-7 at 7:30 pm at Winningstad Theatre. Tickets are available online.
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