By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
The first time I saw New Paradise Laboratories' 27, back during its 2012 Fringe Fest premiere, I thought it was mostly form over function. This dance-theater meditation on purgatory and the "27 Club" - those rock icons who perished directly or indirectly by their own hands at age 27 - was pretty but inconsequential, elegantly wasted.
I'm not sure what has changed since. Me? The show? Or is it just that Plays and Players gave it a distance that the Painted Bride's scrappier stage does not? But this time around, it's gorgeous, heartbreaking, funny, and terrifying all at once.
The cast remains the same: Allison Caw as Janis Joplin, Julia Frey as Amy Winehouse, Kevin Meehan as Jim Morrison, Matteo Scammell as Kurt Cobain, Alec MacLaughlin as a guitar-playing '60s-era emcee, and Emilie Krause as a purgatorial newcomer, the victim of a car accident. Her arrival - wide-eyed, shoeless, stunned - and thwarted efforts at escape provide some of the show's most arresting visuals.
All four icons appear as they did in their final years (costumed by Tara Webb), with a gloriously bearded Morrison in Lizard King pants, Cobain disheveled in a cardigan, striped T-shirt, and tattered jeans, Winehouse sporting her messy beehive and winged eyeliner, Joplin all hair, sunglasses, and crazy smile. And yet, director Whit MacLaughlin somehow manages to suck the glamour from their deaths, and present the true tragedy of their loss.
Here, in the afterlife, they're confined in suspended animation to a smoky, dim party room with a window, door, some streamers, balloons, and in one corner, a big, bright star whose open center leads into the void. Matt Saunders' set and Thom Weaver's lighting combine to create a vision of - if not the scariest - certainly the most prosaic, sad place to spend eternity.
A welcoming committee for other 27s, these iconoclastic firestarters no longer have free will. Doomed to repeat a desperate series of movements, Meehan slinks and prances across the stage on tiptoe, a caricature of Morrison's serpentine concert moves, and in vestigial junkie behavior, Frey itches and picks at her skin. The quartet speak only in snippets of dialogue cut verbatim and context-free from old interviews or recordings.
MacLaughlin's fuzzed-out renditions of Nirvana's "Come as You Are," or the Doors' "Crystal Ship," along with the cast's explosive athletics, make for a hypnotic visit with martyred rock royalty, and asks us to imagine a more sobering vision of that great gig in the sky.
Additional performances: 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday at Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St. Tickets: $20-$25. Information: 215-925-9914 or www.PaintedBride.org.