‘Minnie the Moocher’: Sex, drugs, jazz and puppets


The puppets and performers of “Minnie the Moocher.” (Pointless Theatre/Pointless Theatre)
December 24, 2013

Of all the societal ills one must endure — spam e-mails, Kardashians, twerking — in the old-timey puppet universe of the Pointless Theatre Co., there’s no greater danger than jazz. Case in point: Minnie the Moocher, an ongoing character referenced in the songs of Cab Calloway. In his music, she’s a naive girl lured to New York City by the siren call of jazz, which, via her boyfriend, Smokey Joe, plunges her into an underworld of hepcats, scat and opium. As both a cautionary tale and a Pointless Theatre character, Minnie’s perfect.

“We started to fall more and more in love with the songs that we were hearing, and [found] a narrative of Minnie and Smokey Joe and all of these other characters,” says Patti Kalil, co-artistic director of Pointless and the production’s puppet designer. “You start with Minnie, with nice, little lace-shouldered sleeves, and by the end she’s more bare, promiscuous. She goes on a very fast downhill once the introduction to jazz comes in. It’s the satirical metaphor of one puff and you’re done.”

“Minnie the Moocher” is an expanded version of Pointless’s 2012 production of the same name, and the pantomime, featuring puppets and masked actors, is structured like a concert. Using Calloway’s lyrics, Pointless Theatre pieced together the story of Minnie and Joe, which spans several songs. Other instrumental pieces are used to set the tone.

“It’s sort of a give-and-take,” says Matt Reckeweg, co-artistic director and director of the show. “Some songs explicitly told us what the story needed to be, and for some songs, we’ve given ourselves the opportunity to guide it toward what the story needed to be.”

“Once we figured out the very literal lyrics that worked really well, we chose the more abstract ones to fill in our own blanks,” Kalil adds. “It took us to a dark place.”

The updated production takes more of an inspiration from the cautionary exploitation films of the 1930s, such as “Reefer Madness,” an over-the-top 1936 film about the dangers of marijuana. The show is led by a Calloway-esque singer, played by Aaron Bliden, who narrates the downward spiral of Minnie and the other puppets.

“He’s taking pleasure in seeing Minnie go through this sequence,” Reckeweg says. “It’s sort of the ultimate idea of satire. It’s a story about the dangers of sex, drugs and jazz, being told by someone who is a jazz singer. He’s literally telling the dangers of himself with a smirk on his face — ”

“ — and a shiny white suit,” Kalil interjects.

This isn’t the first time Minnie’s story has been reinterpreted. In 1932, Fleisher Brothers Studio made a Betty Boop cartoon of Minnie the Moocher, which Kalil used as a reference point in developing the show.

“Designing the puppets from a cartoon is a dream,” she says. “Most animation, to me, registers as puppetry on film.”

But film can’t capture the energetic, interactive nature of Calloway’s performances, which often involved call-and- response with the audience. Pointless has been able to capture that in its shows without even trying.

“We thought: ‘Should we have an introduction to teach people to call and respond?’ But we sort of dropped that because . . . we thought maybe people will just figure it out. And they did,” Kalil says. “And that just goes to show how maybe some things are a little more timeless and universal.”

Minnie the Moocher

Wednesday-Jan. 25 at the Mead Theatre Lab
at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. www.pointlesstheatre.com. $15-20. Wednesday’s show is pay-what-you-can, and tickets are available only at the door.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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