Most progressive-minded southerners have a love/hate relationship with their home region that they never quite get over. It certainly holds true for me, and also seems to be the case for Alabama native Charles Terell, the creative force behind Taking The Jesus Pill, a musical that is closing out its successful Los Angeles run and heading for New York. I caught the play on a Monday night in a seedy dive bar on Hollywood Boulevard; back alley entrance, no-nonsense security guards, plenty of bullshit “I’m too important to wait in line” Hollywood attitude. I had never seen a play outside of the artistically sterile environment of a theatre before, and I think, this is part of what makes Taking The Jesus Pill such a memorable experience.
The play starts with a bunch of strippers mounting the stage, as an excellent, tight live band plays behind them and sheriff’s deputies, complete with Confederate flags sewed on to their uniforms, roam the audience. This sets the stage for the story of Tina, a deformed stripper, her sleek rebellious boyfriend, and her crazy evangelistic family. The targets satirized in the play were pretty obvious: Sure, most evangelists and small town politicians are corrupt hypocrites. The play wasn’t telling us much we didn’t already know.
Like most pop culture references to my home region, most of the southern characters were portrayed as stupid and backwards. With the added references to incest, the stereotype bordered on offensive. Some jokes were clever, and all performances were good--there just wasn’t a lot of content here not before. However, as a musical, a spectacle, and a cleverly staged piece of entertainment, Taking The Jesus Pill is well worth your while. The songs are excellent, mostly sung by the songwriter, Charles Terell, donning a top hat and standing in front of the band.
The play is coordinated with filmed images projected in various places around the venue, making for a sleek, creative multi-media show. It included some very funny, well done special effects, and all of the staging and use of space was truly admirable. The characters wander around the whole venue, interacting with patrons, dancing around, throwing things into the audience. At one point, two characters leaped onto the actual bar and started yelling Bible passages at each other. At any point in the show, there are things happening all around, so one could watch this thing two or three times and always see something new. So, although Taking The Jesus Pill generally takes on only safe targets without much new to say about them, for an evening’s worth of quality Southern fried entertainment, you could do a lot worse.