Natalie Rine, Associate New York Critic
Among the 20 works chosen to perform in the inaugural year of the Rave Theater Festival is Waiting for Johnny Depp, making its East Coast debut after much-acclaimed runs in Houston and Los Angeles.
Playing in the intimacy of the Teatro Sea theater off-off-Broadway at The Clemente Solo Velez Cultural Center, this original musical reminded me fondly of the cult-favorite (and similarly named) film Waiting for Guffman in a similar vein of lovable, wacky characters in showbiz…well…waiting for some life-changing event. Inspired by true events in the lives of its creators Janet Cole Valdez and Deedee O’Malley, Waiting for Johnny Depp parades a cheesy, hammed-up amalgamation of zany, semi-autobiographical incidents that make up one actress’s struggle to make it big. The actress in question is the incomparable Donna Vivino as Rita Donatella, a fed-up lab assistant in New York who decides to forsake her education in biology paid for by her parents to follow her dream of becoming an actress and landing a role in a Johnny Depp film. The inciting incident is her agent insisting she is close to landing the role, if only she could (insert a million hilarious conditions she willingly throws herself at while declaring, “Anything For My Craft”).
Unlike Guffman, however, Waiting For Johnny Depp doesn’t embrace it’s potential mockumentary elements, preferring instead to infuse its one woman show with an earnestness that muddles the comedy, landing more like an inside joke from the writers than a universal tale of woe and heart. Perhaps it’s the fact that the nagging mother (pre-recorded voiced by Deedee O’Malley) tries to shame her daughter about paying for her biology degree which costs $60,000, an amount that is supposed to be jaw-dropping, eliciting laughs from an audience over a certain age, clearly not realizing that is the average tuition of only a SINGLE year at a private university in 2019. Not to say that the rest of the piece alienates a younger audience attuned to these sort of red flags; on the contrary, witty songs like the catchy opener “Kiss My Ass,” the audience sing-along “W.T.F,” and “Craigslist” resonate because of the magnetism and verve of Broadway verteran Donna Vivino’s dynamite performance trying to infuse relatability to an otherwise privileged and flat caricature.
Under the brisk direction of Holly Friedman and choreographer Juson Williams, Vivino glides through scenes and songs with seemingly effortless precision and comedic expertise, recounting the wild journey of auditions, rejections, family, and love life mishaps directly to the audience, eating out of the palm of her probably well-manicured hand. Despite immersive elements that has Vivino running into the audience, giving out candy, and leading audience singalongs, Waiting For Johnny Depp’s flat and caricatured script without the gimmick scenes lands as mostly passive and uninteresting, where it’s difficult to root for this stranger’s success or failure when the tone of the piece has us as confused as the casting directors ignoring Rita—is she serious? Is she insane? Are we in on the joke?
Faux-glam scenic design and hilarious wig design rescue the hazy script, allowing Vivino to fully throw herself into the physical comedy of this actress depleted by life’s misfortunes while she waits for her big break. Despite its surface level and narrow personal storytelling, Waiting for Johnny Depp is relatable for industry insiders, actors, and lovers of the theatre, while others should flock simply to see Vivino’s mockumentary tornado of a performance.
WAITING FOR JOHNNY DEPP
“Waiting For Johnny Depp,” presented by the Rave Theater Festival, K.I.S.S. Theatricals, and Mary Alice Walsh has book and lyrics by Janet Cole Valdez and Deedee O’Malley, with music by Deedee O’Malley, Bettie Ross, and Janet Cole Valdez. It is directed by Holly Friedman. “Waiting For Johnny Depp” stars Donna Vivino. Designers includes Michael O’Malley (Scenic), Ezra Fisher (Lighting), Tom Valdez (Sound), Harry Frisch (Comedy Consultant), Juson Williams (Choreography), and Tom Valdez (Additional Music). Run time is about ninety minutes, no intermission.
“Waiting For Johnny Depp” ran at Teatro Sea Theatre at The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center (107 Suffolk Street) as part of the Rave Theater Festival. The Rave Theater Festival concluded August 25. For more information, please visit https://ravetheaterfestival.com/
Photo: Donna Vivino, by Richard Termine.