Gabriel Ebert (as Thompson, left) and George Abud as Richard Nixon (right) in "The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical." Photo by Rich Soublet II
If Hunter S. Thompson were alive to see “The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical” that’s world-premiering at La Jolla Playhouse he’d probably think … aah, who cares what he’d think? He probably wouldn’t like it. So what?
Whether this musical by Joe Iconis (music and lyrics) and Gregory S. Moss (collaborator with Iconis on the book) is an accurate portrayal of the life of so-called “gonzo journalist” Thompson will depend on who you ask. Raise your hand if you’ve read “Hell’s Angels,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72” and “The Rum Diary” – a sampling of Thompson’s most notable, or notorious works. I thought so. Many if not most people over 40 have heard of Thompson and can visualize him in his bucket hat and aviator shades, but have they really, truly read the rambling, counterculture “New Journalism” with which he is credited as having pioneered?
This is not to say I believe Thompson was a hack and a mere opportunist. Cynical and incendiary as he could be, he did make genuinely pointed observations about the purported American Dream that was and is impossible to attain, and his stinging contempt for liars in office (hello, Richard Nixon!) was unrestrained and far more potent than any mainstream political commentary.
For all his anti-Republicanism, anti-war passion and celebration of the freaks who were not part of The Establishment, Thompson was a drug addict and a gun nut, and it was no surprise that he became a cartoon character in the eyes of many observers, including Garry Trudeau who lampooned Thompson as the amoral Uncle Duke in his popular “Doonesbury” strip.
The Playhouse’s scattershot but entertaining-as-hell musical, the roots of which go back more than 15 years when Iconis floated the idea to then-new Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, attempts to tell Thompson’s life story chronologically. That means starting with a boy in Kentucky whose weird librarian mom brings home books for him to read, like “The Great Gatsby,” and winding up with the depressed and deteriorating Thompson (Gabriel Ebert) considering his mortality. (There’s a slam-bang ending too good to spoil here.)
Along Thompson’s staggering, swearing, booze-swilling and drug-doing journey to gonzo status, everything but the proverbial kitchen sink finds its way into a lengthy first act: Hells Angels, Derby Day at Churchill Downs, Haight-Ashbury hippies, Chicano activists, Vegas excess and of course Richard Milhouse Nixon, played with glowering, boasting magic by George Abud. He’s the star of every scene he’s in at the Playhouse. Who knew any caricature of Tricky Dick could be this captivating?
The scenic design by Wilson Chin depicts Thompson’s Woody Creek, Colorado digs. It’s an incredibly detailed, cluttered wall of animal trophy heads, clocks, posters, wild illustrations and assorted cultural detritus of the time -- a perfect backdrop to the psychedelic chaos, anger and energy that must have been raging in Thompson’s head.
In fact, “The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson” musical is in essence a show that could all be taking place inside this American antihero’s head: parties, political conventions, peacocks, et al. This may not be the only way to appreciate this show, but it’s one way.
The second act, which starts promisingly with Thompson’s infatuation with George McGovern and his foredoomed run for the presidency in 1972, sinks into rather familiar theater tropes from then on, even flirting with sentimentality. It’s a comedown from the organized frenzy of Act One (though that aforementioned ending is a salvager.)
Not to be underestimated in this production are the consistently tuneful songs composed by Iconis, a Broadway veteran and cabaret singer-songwriter himself. This show is divided into parts (six in the first act, three in the second), all of them featuring numbers varying in atmosphere from anarchic (“Hell’s Angels Theme Song”) to solemn (“Freedom Song”) to fiery (“Song of the Brown Buffalo”) to stirring (“Wavesong”). The latter, which closes Act One, begins with solo piano and swells into an anthem that has to be among the most moving songs the prolific Iconis has ever written.
Most of the musical highlights are sung not by Ebert as Thompson but by the supporting characters: Jason SweetTooth Williams’ (playing Thompson collaborator, the illustrator Ralph Steadman) “Steadman’s Song”; Jeannette Bayardelle’s “Jann Wenner”; George Salazar’s “… Brown Buffalo”; Marcy Harriell, playing Thompson’s exploited and eventually abused wife, Sandy, doing a pained and passionate breakup song. There is some over-singing going on with the ballads, which may please Broadway-minded audiences but which feels at odds with the rebellious nature of the show as a whole.
Abud’s Nixon has his “Big Number” at the beginning of the second act, and like every Nixon moment (including a skimpy skate across the stage) it works beautifully and resides very much in the spirit of this manufactured ego-war between two icons of the ‘70s. The script’s posturing them as mirror images of each other is a narrative stretch, however.
Both the choreography by Jon Rua and a first-class, cooking band conducted by Rick Edinger heighten the exhilaration and the delirium of the proceedings. Puppetry from Animal Cracker Conspiracy, fixtures at La Jolla Playhouse’s recurring WOW Festivals, can only add to the surrealism of Gonzo World.
As for the gonzo man himself, Ebert is tasked with the nearly impossible prospect of making Thompson at all sympathetic. “Doctor” Hunter S. Thompson was not a nice person, to put it mildly. There’s also the burden of inevitable comparisons to Bill Murray’s or Johnny Depp’s memorable big-screen portrayals of Thompson.
Let’s just say Ebert is fine. He looks and moves the part, and relies on his supporting cast to do the musical heavy lifting.
Christopher Ashley knows well how to direct BIG musicals like this one, and he’s a Hunter Thompson fan. The freewheeling mayhem and indulgence in countercultural touchstones of this show are obviously in very deft hands.
“The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical” is more than anything else a courageous undertaking. It’s also surprising. I never thought I’d want to see more of Richard Nixon.
“The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical” runs through Oct. 8 in La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.