“Matador Records Presents: Slanted! Enchanted! A Pavement Musical!’ read the subject line for the press release announcing a Pavement jukebox musical from Her Smell director Alex Ross Perry. Fans (including an incredulous Jack Black) immediately had questions: Is it real? And more importantly, why is it a thing in the first place?
On paper, Perry would seem to be the perfect person to helm a project like this, since he’s working on a Pavement pseudo-documentary said to combine both fact and fiction about the ‘90s indie rock legends. Fans who were lucky enough to visit the Perry-organized Pavement “museum” while it was open in New York from Sept. 29-Oct. 2 noticed there was a reference to the musical in the semi-fake artifacts used alongside the real memorabilia on display, and were then doubly confused when the production was announced to actually exist a couple of weeks ago.
While the “museum” worked because it was a nice way for fans to look back at the band’s history while taking in wink-wink content (such as a fax machine said to have been used in the Matador office when Pavement got signed), the musical unfortunately fails spectacularly. The joke is seemingly on the audience, who shelled out $30 to experience a show with all the professionalism of a midwestern high school production of West Side Story.
At the Nov. 30 friends-and-family preview I saw, the overwhelming feeling was — what the hell is this? Is it intentionally meant to be this cringe-inducing? Did Perry actually even try to write a cohesive narrative around Pavement’s famously obtuse and irony-drenched lyrics? I suppose it’s possible, at least on paper, to elevate the concept of Pavement being the last band anybody would think to have their songs utilized as the subject of a musical. Instead, we get this absolutely bewildering spectacle that nobody should have been forced to pay for, with corny group dance numbers that don’t fit the tone of the original Pavement material at all, shaky performances, and an unimaginative set.
Maybe this limited, three-day run of “workshop performances” at the 237-seat Sheen Center in downtown Manhattan was supposed to be this messy — a way to iron out kinks before whatever happens with it next. Ross and his team might want to start by ironing out the technical difficulties, including the fact that lead actor Mark Esper’s mic was emitting bothersome static and crackle before it seemed to stop working entirely during the afternoon performance on Dec. 2. Squirming in one’s seat while songs like “Range Life” and “We Dance” are suddenly rendered unamplified is no way to spend a sunny fall afternoon.
When the show finally started, Esper’s Essem (a generic “indie rock dude” in normie clothing meant to represent Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus) emerged from the wings with a (non-plugged in) guitar to sing “You’re Killing Me” from Pavement’s debut EP Slay Tracks, while Zoe Lister-Jones’ Anne painted on an easel at the corner of the stage, dressed like a well-groomed Courtney Love. Okay, fine. But it became quickly apparent that this devoid-of-dialogue production was held together by the flimsiest of narratives, a red flag any fan could have pointed out in advance simply because Malkmus’ songwriting isn’t all that story- or character-driven.
So what do we get instead? I’m genuinely not sure, but think Essem is meant to be an aspiring musician who falls for Anne, and they pack their bags and move to the big city just in time for sultry rocker Loretta (played by Kathryn Gallagher and named after the song “Loretta’s Scars”) to swoop in, seduce him, and force a love triangle. Cue “Ann Don’t Cry,” inexplicably performed with ribbon twirling like something out of a Will Ferrell gymnastics routine from Old School, and a cover-your-eyes-worthy lap dance (!) to “In the Mouth a Desert.” The viewer is left with no conclusion other than that Perry purposefully incorporated the most ill-fitting theater tropes imaginable, making it all the more obvious that these songs should never have been used in a musical in the first place.
The bargain-basement production does the paper-thin story no favors and in some cases actually introduces more confusion. Can’t we do better than a wooden wall covered in Pavement posters and nerd-oriented Easter eggs like the yellow raincoats from the “Carrot Rope” video? The projection screen at the back of the stage displayed random footage like NYC scenery, flowers, and clips from real Pavement music videos, rarely adding any sense of context to the inscrutable jumping, spinning, and “Look! I’m an ACTOR!”-style dramatic stares.
For its hour-long runtime, the musical plays off as an elaborate joke we’re not sure how to interpret. I’m surprised only a few audience members had the self-confidence to laugh out loud during such preposterous scenes as the ensemble dancing around in cowboy hats to “AT&T” and Lister-Jones giving an impassioned rendition of “Fight This Generation” while sitting on a pile of garbage bags. Other moments were unintentionally humorous, like an ensemble member singing in the wrong pitch while attempting to belt out “Spit on a Stranger.”
Perhaps the only way to enjoy Slanted! Enchanted! is as the punchline of a joke nobody needed to tell, involving some of the most original indie rock music of the past 30 years painfully recast as effervescent, choreographed dance numbers you’d see in a production like American Idiot. Is it good? Absolutely not. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the hilarious absurdity of it all.