Stumbling Their Way Through JonBenet

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Dana Shaw as Patsy Ramsey in "JonBenet Ramsey: The Musical"

On Christmas day, 1996, the bludgeoned and strangled body of six-year-old pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey was found in a basement room of her parents’ home in Boulder, Colorado. As horrific as this tragedy was at the time, now slightly less than three decades later, the fate of JonBenét has morphed into comedic tuner parody, conceived, scripted and helmed by Austen Fletcher, utilizing the melodies of such musical theater heavyweights as Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Cameron, Richard Rodgers and John Kander, punctuated by the satirical lyrics of Fletcher and Hannah Hartley. The resulting stage fare resembles an improv exercise in which a group of actors are asked to instantaneously create a musical, based on an absurdly inappropriate suggestion.

Over the course of 45 slipshod minutes, a ten-member ensemble stumbles its way through the Ramsey family’s adventures in bungled law enforcement and judicial ineptness. JonBenét Ramsey: The Musical proudly puts the blame for the girl’s demise on mom, Patsy Ramsey (Dana Shaw), who relishes every moment of her jaundiced celebrity status, in the same spirit as 1920s Chicago murderess Beaulah Annon (fictionalized as Roxie Hart in the musical, Chicago). The erratic on-stage machinations of the cast are made marginally viable by Shaw’s thoroughly committed portrayal of Patsy.

Vocally adroit Shaw takes over the production when Patsy Ramsey offers a musical survey of her life, effortlessly blasting through a medley of anthems—“Memory” (Cats), “I Dreamed a Dream” (Les Miserables) and “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” (Evita)—thematically repurposed by Fletcher and Hartley. Throughout the show, Shaw’s Patsy twinkles with manic glee at every turn in the proceedings that brings the attention back to her. Another highlight is provided by Andrew Diego, chewing up the stage as lunatic John Mark Karr who, in 2006, falsely confessed to the murder.

The rest of the ensemble actually look like they are uncomfortable, at times appearing as if they are painfully pulling dialogue out of the air. Brendon Derk and Michael Brian not only give new meaning to the concept of “inadequate counsel” as Patsy’s defense attorneys, they have to mouth obtuse dialogue that makes them appear to be anti-Semitic as well. As the crime scene cops, Mark Pietruszka, Lindsay Zana and Mary Rachel Gardner have the look of three lost souls who would rather be any place but on stage. This can also be said of Travis Dixon who portrays Patsy’s much put upon husband, John Ramsey. Where the ensemble, including Susan Huckle, does excel is in the zesty full-cast rendering of a parodied, “Master of the House” (Les Miserables).

This exercise in musical theater also features a brief appearance by well-known actor Chuy Bravo (Chelsea Handler’s sidekick on TV’s Chelsea Lately), portraying JonBenét. It is embarrassing for Chuy and unnecessary to the dubious dramatic arc of the show. Why do it? By the way, Cory “Reff” Rivera deserves kudos for his thoroughly professional turn as music director and keyboard accompanist.

JonBenét Ramsey: The Musical plays Friday, June 24 (10:30pm); Saturday, June 25 (4:30pm); and Sunday, June 26 (5:30pm); in Asylum @ McCadden Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Tickets available at: hollywoodfringe.org/projects/3765?tab=tickets

Comments (3)

Default user

“Stumbled” and “slipshod” – I can well believe it. This is the most sickening, disgusting conceit for a musical I have ever heard, and though I’ve moved 3,000 miles away I feel I still am not far enough removed from this nauseating project. It’s common (and for those callous enough, convenient) to assert that comedy is “tragedy plus time”; but it’s a matter of opinion as to how much time is right, and surely not enough time has elapsed to turn that poor little girl’s dreadful murder into camp fodder. When the geniuses behind this jolly celebration of a still-raw, real-life tragedy get around to musicalizing the hilarious homophobia of Omar Marteen and his merry mowing down of over 100 innocents – which on the JonBenet timetable would be, what? 2036? – I hope I remember their names and fly even further away from any contact with their handiwork.

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I haven’t seen this show, but I find the concept of JonBenet as a cartoonish musical romp slightly less disgusting than the pretentious sobriety of what Gregory Moss did with the story in House of Gold. He actually showed the parents molesting and torturing the nymphet. http://www.stagehappenings.com/Jason_Rohrer/reviews/_2011/houseofgold.php.

The philosophy that would allow an artist to create a vehicle of any medium, blaming the living and legally exonerated parents of a murdered child, is one I hope never to appreciate.

Default user

Very well said, sir. I had successfully blocked the Moss excrescence from my memory until now, but you are right that it shares an underlying philosophy—one of cultural, class snobbery—that makes me despair. If the JonBenet murder was so appropriate for spoofing, why didn’t these cretins go for four times the fun, and craft an improv musical extravaganza about the four little girls blown up in that Birmingham church? (If comedy = tragedy + time, that event is at even further remove by a good 33 years.) Well of course no one would; there’s nothing remotely satirical or funny about the Alabama horror. The only difference, as far as I can see, is that the Ramseys had the temerity to put makeup on their daughter and enter her into pageants. For that choice they instantly became trash and fair game for mockery, and even the worst thing that can happen to a family, a child’s violent death, justifies abrogating all standards of decency.

In a favorite play of mine from the early 60s, a middle-class matron—not unlike Patsy Ramsey in many respects—is the subject of extended ridicule by a passel of snotty Bohemians sporting an attitude not unlike the one that must have led to this JonBenet piece. The writer was Lorraine Hansberry, and the play “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” and in it the butt of the joke was given a parting riposte that retains its power and relevance. Staring at the Chablis-drinking, pot-smoking, supercilious bunch that have been ribbing her, she says: “I am standing here and I am thinking: how smug it is in bohemia. I was taught to believe that creativity and great intelligence ought to make one expansive and understanding. That if ordinary people, among whom I have the sense at least to count myself, could not expect understanding from artists…then where indeed might we look for it at all, in this quite dreadful world.”

Today nothing is apparently sacred. Great. Celebrate the freedom. But at least stop to pose the question of whether we, and our art, are better off.


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