The Catamounts are at it again with a gender-bender about Van Halen

So, some questions about The Catamounts’ production of Eddie and Dave, Amy Staats’ gender-bending take on the Van Halen story:

Why should we care about what happened at the 1996 MTV Music Awards?

Does the fact that Eddie and Alex Van Halen and David Lee Roth are portrayed by women add or detract from the story – or is it neutral?

Why is Valerie Bertinelli portrayed by a guy, and does that add to the story?

Why should we care about the origin story of Van Halen in the first place?

The answers would depend on a lot on your own perspective. I, for one, always thought of Van Halen as a B-level hair band. Sure, Eddie could rip and Dave was a great showman, but I never got the legend status bestowed on them by a lot of folks.

On the other hand, the story of how the band forms is a great one: Two brothers moved by their parents from Amsterdam to Pasadena begin playing and writing music together and form a band. At one point, they need some better amps, and the rich kid up the street — an aspiring and obnoxious singer named David Lee Roth — agrees to rent some to them. Ultimately the brothers decide it’d be cheaper to just let Dave join the band, and voilà! Van Fucking Halen is born.

Directed by Amanda Berg Wilson, Eddie and Dave is narrated by a generic MTV VJ played by Janae Burris (recently seen in a commanding, one-woman performance in the Aurora Fox production of Queens Girl in the World).

Here, she’s got her own climbing to do, starting off at MTV as a gofer and telling her own story alongside that of Van Halen’s. She’s a capable, steady presence as a narrator, with her character’s arc culminating in the ill-fated plan to get the band back together to present the award in 1996. (Spoiler alert: Eddie and Dave say dumb shit.)

Missy Moore straps on a blond (blonde?) wig to fill the shoes and tights of Dave, while

Alicia “Lisa” Young takes on Alex Van Halen and Candace Joice picks up the striped guitar and tormented artist persona of Eddie.

Janae Burris is VJ

Janae Burris plays an up-and-coming MTV VJ. | Photo: Michael Ensminger

Women as men

So back to that question: How does women playing guys work here? Does it even matter?

Sometimes, it definitely adds something. Like when Alex, in reaction to all the chicks swarming the band, blurts out “I wish I had two dicks!” What would have been a stupid throwaway laugh for a male actor becomes particularly hilarious coming from Young — a zaftig Black actor whose eye-rolling sarcasm is perfect for a peacemaker with no interest in the job.

As one of the most fearless comedic actors in Colorado, Moore is an ideal choice to portray the crown prince of cock-rock — David Lee Roth. Where a male actor might have tied himself in knots trying to get Roth right, Moore just does her own very funny take on the swinging-dick rocker, portraying Dave as a regular dude who just wants to get the crowd going — and who’s not afraid to break out the assless chaps when occasion dictates.

At its heart, Eddie and Dave isn’t so much a story about a rock band as it is one about a dysfunctional family, with Eddie’s fragile artistry at the center.

Along with his early hesitancy and stage fright comes the heavy smoking, drinking and drug use that led to his early death just last year at 65. The script sticks to those basic facts, depicting Eddie as a sweet guy with a caustic side who just wants to write and play.

As she is in just about everything I’ve seen here in, Joice is just tremendous in this role, wincing her way through the tumultuous heyday of Van Halen like a kite in a hurricane barely hanging on. When, after several costume changes, she emerges in a pair of overalls striped like Eddie’s signature guitar, the diminutive Joice seems to shrink physically even as Van Halen’s artistic prowess and ambition grows.

The audience can’t take their eyes off of her, the big guitar a steady presence on her slight frame as Eddie tries to balance his own ego with his natural introversion. It’s a neat performance, balanced by Moore’s bombastic and confident Dave on the other end and Young’s frustrated but steady Alex in the middle.

Candace Joice as Eddie Van Halen and Christopher Berghoff as Valerie Bertinelli

Candace Joice as Eddie Van Halen and Christopher Berghoff as Valerie Bertinelli | Photo: Michael Ensminger

Question mark

The Valerie Bertinelli role is the only gender switch that didn’t quite add up for me. While the women playing men spoke in their natural voices most of the time, Christopher Berghoff plays Eddie’s love interest in drag — dress, wig, high voice and all. The sitcom actress was a big presence in Eddie’s life and no doubt played witness to his many shortcomings. But Staats didn’t leave a lot of time for exploring whatever those dynamics might have been other than the typical concerned/annoyed/about-to-leave wife of an addict.

Whether or not Val played by a woman would have made a difference isn’t clear, but the three dudes at the center of the story being portrayed by woman really does turn the story on its ear — and with a reason. As Berg Wilson told Juliet Wittman in Westword:

“We essentially have men who did the fascinating thing about being kind of femme and sort of cock-swingy at the same time. They had long hair and wore tights, were very masculine and wore makeup. These days we’re tackling it from the perspective that we’re not as binary as people once thought, but rock stars have been playing with gender for a long time — Bowie, Prince, Jagger. I love that. There’s something about a rock star personality that transcends gender.”

Berg Wilson takes full advantage of the large, open performance space at The People’s Building, giving the actors plenty of room to move and relying on a simple set comprised of a few risers, amps and equipment boxes. She had her hands full with this talented cast and a pretty funny script — exploiting the humor where it was warranted while giving the actors leeway to find the humanity in these larger-than-life characters.

It was interesting to see how the music itself was handled. Rather than worrying about paying royalties, easily recognizable hints of Van Halen songs stand in, while the playing itself is done with snippets of mimed action.

Eddie and Dave may take some liberties with what made this particular rock band come together or fall apart, but as a story about friendship, family, success and failure, it’s a fun ride well worth checking out. With its quirky casting, Eddie and Dave manages to make more out of the story than meets the eye.

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