Theater Review: The United States Of Tamarie

Performer/writer/director Tamarie Cooper's most hilarious summer musical yet... surely the freshest, funniest and most pertinent show you’ll encounter on any Houston stage this summer.

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Get ready to laugh, America! At the funniest topic of all — ourselves.

The United States of Tamarie: An All-American Revue (Made in China) is arguably the most hilarious entry yet in performer, writer and director Tamarie Cooper’s series of free-wheeling annual summer musicals.

After taking maternity leave last summer, Cooper has returned to the challenge of cooking up another original show with her trademark zaniness and irreverence intact, but with refreshed creativity and sharpened focus.

The current Catastrophic Theatre production serves up a gimlet-eyed yet affectionate send-up of all the varied aspects of contemporary American identity. In that cause, Cooper, her creative collaborators and her insanely talented gang of onstage cohorts come up with one pointed and uproarious sequence after another.

Most of United States rides on the sheer craziness and outrageousness that Cooper’s fans have come to expect. Yet underpinning much of it is a genuinely inspired sense of satire that lifts the overall show to a new level of consistency and purpose.

The full-company opener America is Awesome gets the show off to a rousing start, with everyone frenetically singing the nation’s praises and bouncing around the stage with mad exuberance, all but Cooper clad in Uncle Sam costumes. After the number, a lone dissenter rises from the audience: series regular Walt Zipprian (as himself), objecting to the mindless jingoism. He storms the stage, cataloging the nation’s faults and historical wrongs, until he has all the cast (but Cooper) echoing his negativism in America Is Terrible.

The rest of the show finds Cooper and Zipprian as co-hosts, analyzing different facets of American life — Zipprian ever the critical voice, Cooper trying to find the bright side and restore the initial pro-America mood.

Are most Americans ignorant of history, geography and such? The show answers the charge with a wry game show spoof, Answer Like an American, featuring Kyle Sturdivant as the smarmy emcee and Cooper as the eager contestant who scores not with correct answers but with answers an American would give.

“Who won the Vietnam War?” “Rambo!”

“Who was Thomas Jefferson’s wife?” “Ouisie!”

Another sequence heralds the low opinions that other nations have of the U.S. Sean Patrick Judge as snooty and condescending France, Sturdivant as troublemaking Germany, Karina Pal Montano-Bowers as calculating China, and the rest berate the U.S. while sending up stereotypes of each nation’s identity.

Born Again Texans treats the notion that unfortunates born in other states can become “born again” as transplants to Texas. Naturally, it takes the form of a frenzied revival meeting, with Sturdivant as the wild-eyed evangelist who “saves” the (gasp) Chicago-born Cooper.

In Act 2, Cooper tries to find the elusive ideal America by time traveling to the “good old days” — the 1950s, the 1930s, the 1920s, even all the way back to the pilgrims on Plymouth Rock. But each time, she finds some drawback that renders life in that period unendurable. When she tries the reverse, escaping into the future, the results are likewise problematic. At one point, she finds herself in a near-future Obama Nation, in which all the ridiculously dire predictions of Obama bashers have, in fact, come true.

Cooper again proves a winning stage personality with top comic skills. Following a format effectively employed by comedians from Jack Benny to Mary Tyler Moore to Jerry Seinfeld, she often plays bewildered “straight man” to the constellation of zanies surrounding her.

Zipprian is ideally cast as the genial crank, oozing enough snide sarcasm to make David Letterman seem sincere by comparison. Sturdivant impresses with his succession of alarming wackos who start out over the top and go off the charts from there, especially his vivid turn as a Conspiracy Theorist. Sean Patrick Judge turns in one gem of satiric characterization after another, from pretentious Frenchman to ‘30s movie hero spouting incredibly intense machine-gun-fire dialogue in one of the funniest scenes.

Ivy Castle as an obnoxious TV newscaster, Elissa Levitt as a dippy futureworld folksinger and Richard Lyders’ indefatigably irritating Kenny G. are a few of the memorable cameos that enliven the show.

Apart from being a shade obvious at times, Patrick Reynolds’ book (based on Cooper’s scene concepts) is consistently funny. The songs, by multiple contributors, may not be memorable in the classic standard fashion, but serve astutely as special material delivering the satiric points of the different episodes. (They’re more musical sequences than songs per se, anyway.)

As director, Cooper keeps the action percolating and her lively dance routines are exuberantly performed by the company. Musical director Miriam Daly and her four-piece band do nifty work throughout.

The United States of Tamarie is surely the freshest, funniest and most pertinent show you’ll encounter on any Houston stage this summer.