The bosoms-heaving Kansas farm girl in the blue-gingham dress and sensible ruby reds announces: "1939." Dirty Dorothy says it with a throaty reverence, taking us back, certain we all know her 1939 like we do Elvis' 1957 or the Beatles' 1964.
"Topeka Civic Center," she continues, lording over a red-and-gold-swirl center stage — the first curl in the yellow-brick road. She beams at her band: Tin Man on guitar, in full Kiss makeup and badly in need of an oil can; the Cowardly Lion on bass, ready to paw out more thunder; Scarecrow on drums, which might be a joke about drummers, but because ol' no-brain is always pounding out a ferocious shimmy-shimmy-cocoa-pop, part bubblegum and part Stooges, nobody's laughing.
"The Tin Man hit a chord," Dorothy says, "that was known as the Lamaze breathing to the birth of rock and roll."
The Tin Man strikes this chord again. The song: "See a Rainbow." And then heart, courage and brains come together in a power-trio roar while Dirty Dorothy (created and played by Jessica Dressler) flashes her bloomers, leaps onto audience laps and belts powerful rock and roll possessed of joy and madness. Seriously, in these songs by Ron Simonian (who also plays the Tin Man as well as hot-shit guitar), whatever life is left in garage rock swells up in Crown Center, of all places. Yes, the new homegrown musical Dirty Dorothy and the Emerald City All-Stars pretty quickly gets us over its rainbow. Then it yanks our pants down and starts spanking.
The music is great unruly fun, all trash and romance and filthy jokes. The script is fun, too, but not as consistently as the songs. Highlights include "Devil in My Uterus"; a wicked candy rock inspired by the Lollipop Guild; and "Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead" (its famous title is rhymed with "I dropped a house on her fucking head"). The standout is "Poppies," a dreamy rock ballad like something Wendy & Lisa would write for Prince. Pulsing with real feeling and beautifully played by John Lenati (bass) and Lesley Tribble (drums), it's the best evidence for how a show this fun could be something richer.
Simonian's script imagines that Dirty Dorothy — a character that Dressler has honed at cabaret and drag shows for years — invented rock and roll not long after leaving Oz for her black-and-white bedroom. For the 71 years since, she has been a superstar, touring relentlessly for, as she puts it a couple of times too many, "the pussy." The show is a pretend concert in which a transgressive heroine looks back over her career, pretty much like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, right down to the horrors of being gay in Kansas. When Auntie Em and Uncle What's-His-Name drop by to congratulate their openly gay niece, Simonian's Fred Phelps jokes are gratifyingly fierce.
Between numbers, friends from Dorothy's past turn up as crudely animated characters on a pair of flat-screen TVs. (The good witch Glenda, voiced by Ron Megee, lets loose so many strings of chilly, trembly ahs, she sounds like she's straddling a cold bidet.) Many of these encounters are funny, especially when Dressler, a strong improviser, is thrown off by the timing of her prerecorded scene mates. The tech is always a breath or two off — sometimes the voices come too fast, and she has to rush, her annoyance winning laughs that drown out the jokes. Sometimes the voices lag, which is funnier still.
Too bad these bits don't build into anything. Of course, the Wicked Witch of the West turns up to threaten Dorothy, and there's some inscrutable business involving a stagehand as a flying monkey, but neither pays off. Eventually, weak impressions of Ellen DeGeneres and Melissa Etheridge prove to be showstoppers in the bad way: The show wanders into a sketch-comedy cul-de-sac.
Such time-killing nonsense might not seem so egregious if Simonian and Dressler didn't aspire to some emotional significance in the finale. It might seem silly to complain that a show titled Dirty Dorothy and the Emerald City All-Stars fails to move me, but the show wants to move the audience. It even comes close. A big ballad ending and encore correct everything that has always felt false about The Wizard of Oz's insistence that Kansas beats Munchkinland.
Suddenly, at that point, the jokes stop, and we see Dorothy, vowing retirement, prepare to click her heels. If we had a greater understanding of the world that Dorothy was leaving and the home toward which she might be headed, this might be potent. Instead, when she inevitably tells us that there's no place like home, we just have to take her word for it.
Fortunately, there's an encore. Rock and roll!