Though I had seen it as a gutted shell, I’d not been inside the completed Altamont Theater on Church Street until the opening of Prime Ribbing, the news satire by Stephen de Ghelder. Brian and Tiffany Lee have created a woody, compact, elegant space, exactly right for such a giggly romp. The Asheville theater gourmet would be advised to hit the Altamont and The Magnetic Field in the same weekend, to see what breathtakingly different and contrastingly inspired artistic visions can propel theaters of just about the same size in the very same little town. Imagine Marat/Sade and Camelot playing across the street from each other on Broadway.
Anyway, Prime Ribbing is proof that satire is locally alive and well. De Ghelder adapted his own hit off-Broadway production for the Asheville stage, and the adaptation is wholly successful, topical, precise and hilarious. There are moments when it glitters. There are moments when it hits a wrong note, but even those moments are kind of funny. I’ve heard The Capital Steps on the radio, and Prime Ribbing is wittier, smarter, better sung.
De Ghelder — who created and directs this project — selects songs from Broadway musicals and provides them with new, satirical lyrics. Everybody does this, I guess, but when my friends and I do it, it’s halting and silly and gets through only a few lines before collapsing from its own lack of sustained inspiration. De Ghelder does more than sustain; he recreates, so that you have to think hard to remember what the original lyrics were. At least for the 90 minutes of its life, this show owns the whole treasure of Broadway. The lyrics are smart and funny. One expects that. But they are also allusive, intelligent, challenging, and while one is laughing one’s head off, one is taking thought as well.
The usual suspects take it on the chin — Sarah Palin, Charlie Sheen, airport body searches, diets, senators. All in good fun, though I suspect that if I weren’t as left wing as I am — if I were in fact a Republican — I might have wearied a little of the clearly slanted barrage. But since the mockery was going in a way I approved, I loved every minute of it. I recommend Prime Ribbing to anyone who wants a night out which is neither dumb nor too draining on the emotions. Want to laugh a lot, think a little, hear some great tunes twisted into something rich and strange? Come to the Altamont while this show runs. And if, when you hear the word “satire,” you think of some sorry-ass bout of local improv, cast that thought away. Prime Ribbing so professional I wished I had worn a tie.
DeGhelder is very lucky in his performers. Each had his or her specialty: Andre Ellerby’ s Barack Obama is right on the money, and Michael LaFleur’s eyebrows are as expressive as many whole casts. Mary Kathryn Lyerly’s Sarah Palin is as good as Tina Fey’s. The material, excellent on its own, is thoroughly sold by its cast. I attended opening night, and if anything was not polished to a sheen, I didn’t detect it.
The cabaret-style space seemed problematic to me — only the front tables got full sight of the performers — but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lees had surprises up their sleeves not yet guessed at. They do have a slate of pocket musicals waiting in the wings, including Pete ‘n’ Keely, Songs for a New World, Romance Romance and Five Guys Named Mo. If you’re like me, you’ve never heard of any of them. I look forward to an enlightening year on Church Street.
Prime Ribbing runs through June 18. Shows Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m. Tickets $14 to $22.