Big Kitchen: A Counter Culture Musical. San Diego should confer the equivalent of knighthood on its special ones — those who have devoted decades to making some part of “America’s Finest City” approach that inflated claim.
An original inductee would create a problem. You couldn’t touch each shoulder with a broadsword and say, “Judy Forman, I dub thee Sir Judy.” The honor mustn’t specify a gender.
And Judy Forman’s iconic diner, The Big Kitchen Cafe, is one of the places where, for over 35 years, gender equality has reigned.
I’ve said for years they should make a TV series about the Big Kitchen, set back in the early 80s. Why? Because some of America’s finest comics either worked at or hung out there: Whoopi Goldberg washed dishes, when she wasn’t part of the comedy team (Don) Victor and Goldberg. Kathy Najimy and Maureen Gaffney (of the Broadway hit “the Kathy & Mo Show”) were there, along with members of the comedy group Hot Flashes, plus artists, poets, and marginalized gays and lesbians.
The premise: future stars, working in a diner, try out material and lead the new wave of feminism and tolerance in San Diego. Like Friends, only really funny and socially progressive.
Forman — a.k.a. “Judy the Beauty on Duty” — should be knighted. But she’s enjoying the next best thing. Big Kitchen: A Counter-Culture Musical — music by Robert Schleeter, book, Corey Fayman — pays her long overdue homage.
Given the time constraints, we only see the first act, and don’t come to the actual dilemma: Judy’s retiring, who can possibly replace her?
The piece begins slowly, and assumes we already know the legend. Judy comes from Detroit, buys a diner in South Park, and creates a magnet for the “counter” — in two senses — culture.
The first two songs are generic Broadway fare. But starting with “We Was Humpin,” belted by Julian Davis, among others, and “I Wanna Be a Star” (Yvette Jackson) and concluding with back-to-back anthems, “You’re Looking for the Power” (Eboni Muse — a blast) and “Everybody Needs to Eat,” things keep on kicking.
The musical offers a history of the diner and San Diego as well. “If,” a moving song about AIDS, and “Can We Work It Out?” are high quality.
Lydia Lea Real does a terrific monologue as Rusty — biker, lesbian, ex-Marine — that’s a major testimonial to Forman and the Big Kitchen.
Wearing one of Forman’s tie-dyed rainbow-colored outfits, Laura Preble has “the Beauty on Duty” down to a T. The show also sports living history: Don Victor — of Victor and Goldberg — plays Bernie.
The production numbers make up in spirit what they sometimes lack in polish. As does this Carla Nell-directed show. It needs work and could make the central issue — Forman’s leaving — much more urgent from the start. But as is, and only half of the whole, it’s guaranteed to uplift.