The Show Must GO

It's the best of times and the worst of times for St. Louis theater companies

Transitioning from Jason Robert Brown's bluesy "The River Won't Flow," New Line Theatre's cast recedes into the shadows of the Ivory Theatre's spanking-new stage.

As the actors all but disappear, Khnemu Menu-Ra steps into the spotlight. His hair cut short and a delicate goatee dusting his chin, the rail-thin Menu-Ra launches into "Gethsemane," a mournful number from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar.

Gethsemane is the garden where Christ and His disciples went to pray after the Last Supper. It is also the site where Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ to the Romans, giving Him up for crucifixion. The song is filled with references to Christ's imminent demise, as well as Christ's own doubts about His impending martyrdom. "Why why should I die?" he asks. "Can you show me now/That I would not be killed in vain?"

The Archdiocese of St. Louis went to court to block his company's curtain-raiser, Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, at the spanking-new Ivory Theatre. But New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller sees smoother sailing ahead.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis went to court to block his company's curtain-raiser, Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, at the spanking-new Ivory Theatre. But New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller sees smoother sailing ahead.

First crouching and then sitting on stage, Menu-Ra cuts an unlikely Christ figure. Clad in a light gray suit and tie, he's more of an everyman, transforming the number's biblical theme into one of marital infidelity. As he comes to accept his fate, he pulls a rubber tourniquet and syringe from his pocket. Tying off his arm and driving the plunger home, he sings, "You're far too keen on where and how/But not so hot on why/All right I'll die!/Just watch me die!"

As he collapses on the floor, concluding the number, members of the cast begin to re-emerge from the horseshoe of chairs that fills the stage. Cast member John Rhine embraces Menu-Ra and then, taking his cue from the four-piece band that ups the tempo, turns his attention to "Flying Home," another Jason Robert Brown tune and the penultimate number in New Line Theatre's production of Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll.

The inaugural show at the newly christened Ivory Theatre, Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll is the brainchild of New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller. The show combines musical numbers from more than twenty separate musicals — everything from Oklahoma! to Hedwig and the Angry Inch — creating a theatrical crazy quilt exploration of...well, sex, drugs and rock & roll.

"These are these three very powerful cultural forces. We wanted to make a piece of theater that explored those," offers Miller, an animated man whose face is punctuated by a bushy mustache and framed with fine blond hair. "In the days since all this, I've talked to people and they've said, 'Well, yeah, it does sound pretty pornographic,' and I'm like: 'Really? Because it doesn't to me.' This phrase has been around for 50 years. How is it that scary and provocative? That was the biggest surprise of all. But I think that really took them aback — that we wanted to have a serious discourse on what sex, drugs and rock & roll are all about."

By "them," Miller means the Archdiocese of St. Louis. As the former owner of St. Boniface Catholic Church — the building, located in the Carondelet neighborhood of south St. Louis, that now houses the Ivory Theatre — the archdiocese maintains some control over how the facility may be used, in the form of a deed restriction that accompanied the sale of the property in 2005.

The restriction stipulates that St. Boniface may not be used as a venue for "human abortion, sterilization [or] euthanasia." It prohibits tattoos or massages on the premises, as well as the "sale of pornographic or soft pornographic" materials. Finally, the deed restriction prohibits "live performances directed to an adult audience rather than the general public."

Pointing to this last provision, the archdiocese, represented by its attorneys and Monsignor Vernon Gardin, persuaded St. Louis Circuit Judge Philip D. Heagney to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the show from opening on September 27.

"The reason for the deed restriction is to honor the memory of the people that used to worship there," Monsignor Gardin explains. "When we became aware of the show, we had an obligation to make sure that the agreement was being honored."

That night, instead of opening the show in a brand-new theater, New Line cast members spent the evening filming the most controversial sections of the show for the archdiocese's review.

"When I bought the church, I signed this thing," explains the Ivory's owner, Pete Rothschild, who has completed several high-profile real estate projects in the Central West End. "It's a little bit broad — they didn't want strip clubs and topless joints. Then this show comes along. In truth, it's completely innocuous. But [the archdiocese] saw an ad in Alive magazine that said, 'Leave the kids at home.' New Line's ad called it 'adult entertainment,' and they freaked out."

Judge Heagney scheduled a hearing for September 28, when he would consider arguments for making the restraining order permanent. But before the hearing Miller showed Monsignor Gardin videotaped portions of the show, including the prologue from the musical Baby, which describes the meeting of a sperm and egg. Other numbers Gardin saw included "By Threes," a song about threesomes, and a ditty about sexually transmitted diseases called "I Got It from Agnes."

"It wasn't what had been billed in the advertising. There were two places that said this was 'adults only, keep the children home.' So it could be construed as not honoring the agreement," says the monsignor. "But after a collaborative discussion, we came to a mutual agreement that it did not violate the agreement."

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