There was a scene in Wreck It-Ralph, the 2012 Disney film that gave us a glimpse into the behind the scenes lives of some arcade game characters, where Ralph encounters a down on his luck Q*bert. The aging character, whose game has been unplugged, has been forced to live off the kindness of modern video game characters in the arcade’s power outlet cum transit station.
It’s an interesting concept, to think about what might happen to formerly groundbreaking game characters once they’re replaced by the latest and greatest. It’s a concept that Scott Shoemaker and Freddy Molitch took to heart when they created last year’s hit cabaret show, Ms. Pak-Man: Multiple Lives!, and it’s soon to debut sequel, Ms. Pak-Man: Bonus Stage!.
Like a lot of good ideas, the inspiration for this one came out of left field.
“It was mostly from a night out drinking,” confirms Molitch, “seeing the side of a Ms. Pac-Man arcade cabinet, and wondering what the character would be up to nowadays. A hilarious timeline started to evolve in our imaginations and we knew that it would make for a great show! It’s basically Liza Minnelli dressed as a tennis ball.”
Liza may be the foundation for this show’s Ms. Pak-Man, but Shoemaker, who plays the show’s titular character, takes it even one step further.
“Once we started talking about it,” he says, “I was just really excited to see how far we could push it. I wanted the character to be like Sandra Bernhardt, Judy Garland, and Lindsay Lohan rolled into one. But pixellated, of course.”
No matter what personality Shoemaker infuses the character with, though, the jokes only work if who you see onstage looks right. Translating a two-dimensional character into real life, without an Industrial Light & Magic budget, is no small feat.
“To make our interpretation of Ms. Pak-Man work visually,” he explains, “we had to strike a balance between evoking the game’s character and portraying her as a glamorous, yet slightly washed up, cabaret star. It also had to be extremely over the top to stay in line with the general concept and all the bizarre content that makes up the show.”
The costume not only had to look the part, of course, but it also had to work.
“It had to be something I could actually move and dance in, and not die of heat stroke after being onstage for two hours,” confirms Shoemaker. “Luckily, we had the genius of Jake Nelson to create what I think is probably one of the most beautifully ridiculous yet functional costumes I’ve ever seen. He couldn’t have done a better job.”
The success of the show, though, leading to the existence of its sequel, is due as much to the music and the writing as anything else. The character is based on a pretty old game, after all, and the show has to appeal to a broader audience than just the folks who remember eating slices of greasy pizza off the top of arcade table consoles. Finding that balance, and appealing to gamers and non-gamers alike, was important to Molitch.
“I’m a big video game nerd and 80s kid,” he tells me, “so putting in the slightly more obscure references is a big kick for me, but we made sure that everyone will have fun at the show. The references for hard-core nerds like me will just be bonus Easter eggs!”
Molitch went out of his way, he says, to make sure that the show, while broadly appealing, is still exciting and fun.
“I think the whole show will be pretty surprising to most people,” he claims, “but there are a couple of mash-up moments that will be a special treat. In last year’s show, people loved when we sang Buckner & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever over Peggy Lee’s Fever, so we have some similar moments in this year’s show. Also, I’ll just say that if our Ms. Pak-Man is doing a heartfelt tribute to you, you should probably watch out.”
Part of the shows appeal is the fusion of genres and art forms. It’s a blurring of the lines that represents some of Seattle’s more successful live performances, including the Brown Derby series of “ridiculously staged readings of your favorite screenplays,” of which Shoemaker and Molitch are both veterans.
“Old school gamers will love all the references of course,” Shoemaker explains, “but it’s also a show for people who love drag, camp, and comedy. There’s a good amount of general 80s nostalgia as well, especially with the music. There are a lot of great numbers in this one that will really appeal to anybody.”
If you were lucky enough to catch last year’s show, you can rest assured that this one will be bigger, better, and more over the top.
“Almost all the songs are new,” says Shoemaker. “There’s some new original music, and we’ve incorporated more video and some new special effects. Also, the curtain is pulled back a little more on Ms. Pak-Man’s life to reveal some of her darkest secrets!”
“Before the first show,” Molitch adds, “we really had to wonder if people would get into the premise of a drunk, washed up, train-wreck diva from the 80s video game world. Since we got such an enthusiastic response, we are much more comfortable with pushing the idea even further this time around. This year she really dives in to her sordid past and her debaucherous dealings since last year’s show.”
Whether you’re on old school video gamer, or just a fan of fun, campy, musical drag, both Shoemaker and Molitch think that this will be show for you. And I’m inclined to agree.
Ms. Pak-Man: Bonus Stage! is playing at Rebar Thursdays through Saturdays from August 27 until September 5. Tickets are only $20 for General Admission seating, or $75 for a 2-seat VIP table, and can be found here.