Tuesday, May 27, 2008

“Happy Songs About the War” at Compass

Don’t Be Put Off by the Title — See This Show!


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Even if you reach the predictable — and accurate — conclusion that singer-songwriter-playwright JD Boucharde was being ironic when he titled his current show (playing Sunday through Wednesday nights through June 4 at Compass Theatre, nèe 6th @ Penn, 3706 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest) Happy Songs About the War, you might not be anxious to sit through it. Go anyway. Boucharde, a tall, lanky blond man with well-tattooed forearms and a strong voice, surprisingly rock-ish given that he makes most of his living as a cocktail-lounge pianist, turns out also to be an excellent actor and an incisive if not always original writer who slips easily from speech to song and from one character to another in this one-person show.

Boucharde has been writing Happy Songs About the War since the U.S.’s current occupation of Iraq started in 2003. Originally it was just a side project while he recorded a CD to follow up a previous album called Contra Mundum (“Against the World”). Figuring he’d better finish Contra Mundum, Vol. 2 first, Boucharde explained, “I put it away in The Drawer, where many of my other great ideas go. It sat there, silent, patient, barely breathing.”

Things changed in December 2006, when, Boucharde said, “after buying a house, moving and galumphing clumsily through the holidays, I found myself wide awake one night, staring at the ceiling. I got up, turned on the computer, and wrote until dawn. The next morning, I did the exact same thing. And the next, and the next. It became this strange ritual: every night, without exception, I’d put on my robe, grab the space heater, and shuffle out to the computer in the living room. Luckily, my wife — as well as being drop-dead gorgeous and capable of putting up daily with the likes of me — can sleep through anything.”

What has emerged from this series of all-nighters is a project that artfully combines songs and sketches to tell the grim story of how the U.S. got involved in Iraq. It doesn’t offer any especially new insights but it does manage to have a certain amount of fun with the story we all know, from the grandfatherly photo and aureole of banal New Age synthesizer tinkling that accompanies every mention of the name “Dick Cheney” to the cell-phone calls from the unseen, unheard “Landon,” supposedly Boucharde’s attorney, which interrupt the show (on purpose) and provide a running gag on how often the legal climate changes in the Bush administration.

The main thread of the show is contained in the song “Gold Chain of Command,” a folkish ballad set to a tune similar to the one Woody Guthrie used in “Deportees,” which recurs throughout the show to tell how the war filtered down from the corporate interests who ordered it through the political system down to the soldiers on the front line who do the actual fighting — and dying. Other songs in the show, notably “War Party,” are more openly satirical, albeit in a wry way. Perhaps the best song in the show is “Bullets Are Our Friends,” as vicious and insightful a musical look at the whole mentality behind accepting endless war as inevitable as any one can imagine. Boucharde wisely bookends the show with his most inspiring anthems, the gospel-flavored “Wake-Up Call” at the beginning and “Shine,” a pacifist sing-a-long reminiscent of John Lennon’s “Imagine” which Boucharde originally wrote for a Christmas-themed show called The Unconquerable Sun, at the end.

But the show isn’t all music. Boucharde turns out to be an excellent actor, especially in his impersonation of President George W. Bush trashing the Constitution. He has the physique for Bush and his reproduction of the President’s halting delivery, penchant for malapropism and repetition of phrases in his text he’s not sure he understands is spot-on. The other high point of the show’s spoken portion is a spoof of the mainstream media, particularly Fox News (the style of the graphics Boucharde, Callow and videographers Kirk and Noelle Geiger prepared for this segment give the game away), for going along with the government’s propaganda and telling us in a golly-gee-whillikers tone that “The War Is Going Really, Really Well!”

The child-like nature of Boucharde’s performances as Bush and several newscasters is key to one of the most interesting role-reversals in his script. When the second act begins, he’s playing a six-year-old sitting at a table behind a sign reading, “My Very Best Ideas 25¢” — which seems to have been inspired by Lucy’s “Psychiatric Help 5¢” booth in Peanuts — and there’s a long scene in which he accosts an unseen grownup that for the longest time doesn’t seem to have anything to do with war or Iraq at all. Eventually the connection becomes clear — and so does Boucharde’s ironic intent: while all the adults in his story (especially the real-life ones) are acting like children, the six-year-old is denouncing the use of religion to justify war and thinking like an adult. Once again, he’s got the acting chops to pull this off — his body posture lightens and he does a good job of reproducing the sheer rambunctious energy of a young boy — before he rather rudely returns us to the grownup world.

Happy Songs About the War is a cheeky show that doesn’t quite live up to its title — not that it really should — but is genuinely moving and well worth seeing. It’s billed as a “workshop” production, meaning it’s still a work in progress and liable to be rewritten based on audience responses, but about all that’s wrong with it in its present form is the sound glitches. Throughout much of the first act on opening night, May 25, Boucharde’s electronic keyboard instrument was so loud it overwhelmed his vocals, and by the time he and Callow got it turned down for act two, they started having trouble with his microphone and he had to worry about drowning himself out again. (His songs have lyrics that are worth listening to, and it’s a shame he and his wife Azúl, who runs the box office, aren’t selling the songs on CD in the lobby; they’re working on a DVD presentation instead.) Boucharde’s biography in the program says this is the first time he’s ever acted on a professional stage; he’s good enough that it certainly won’t be the last.

Happy Songs About the War runs every Sunday through Wednesday night through Wednesday, June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Compass Theatre, 3706 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. If you have a broadband Internet connection, you can order tickets online at www.happysongsaboutthewar.com. Otherwise go through the San Diego Performing Arts Scene Web site, http://tickets.sandiegoperforms.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=594. You can also hear JD Boucharde as a pianist every Sunday evening at the Turf Club, 1126 25th Street in Golden Hill.