Thing-Fish: The Return of Frank Zappa

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Philip Fisher, 2003, The British Theatre Guide

Philip Fisher interviews Wolf Rahlfs, actor in the Edinburgh 2002 five-star Notes From Underground, about his latest collaboration, the World Premiere of a musical by the legendary Frank Zappa, which he directs.

The late Frank Zappa, who died almost 10 years ago, is a truly iconic figure. How could somebody who produced albums with titles such as Ship Arriving too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, Does Humour Belong in Music and Playground Psychotics; and children with names like Dweezil and Moon Unit be anything other than a hero to a certain type of person.

Three of those people are the Germans, Wolf Rahlfs, Tommi Eisele and Daniel Knapp, who together have formed Stagecraft Entertainment. The company's first production is the world premiere of Zappa's only musical, Thing-Fish. This rather weird animal commenced its strange artistic history with a request from Zappa's friend, the notorious Larry Flynt, to turn it into a fantasy feature photo story for his Hustler magazine.

While Thing-Fish made it into Hustler and the original cast recording was released in 1984, somehow the show was never produced on stage. Zappa had high hopes for it. He was really keen to see the show produced on Broadway and the ambitious Wolf Rahlfs would love to be part of the team that ultimately manages to take it there.

The three young Germans, who met at Sir Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), were determined to bring the show to the public. The road to production has been a long and hard. In December 1999, Tommi contacted the Zappa Family Trust to ask permission to stage Thing-Fish. A year later, Zappa's widow, Gail gave initial permission for a small-scale production of a couple of scenes that took place at LIPA. This production proved to be a major success, selling out every performance weeks before opening, and attracting visitors from across Europe. Gail Zappa has remained close to the project ever since and has given the company considerable encouragement.

The Liverpool success encouraged the group to form Stagecraft Entertainment and begin their major project of producing a full-scale stage version. After much hard work, they persuaded BAC to give the show a three-night London run that is already looking as if it will extend to four performances due to popular demand.

Certainly, those who have seen the 30-minute version and other work by this team are extremely enthusiastic. Tom Morris, artistic director at BAC, has gone on record as saying that "this is an experimental project with real potential which I unhesitatingly recommend for support".

Simon Prentis - a friend of the Zappa family and described as a semantic scrutiniser! - goes even further if that is possible, "The LIPA performance by Tommi Eisele and his band of demented cohorts wrung tears from dry eyes haunted by Hustler visions... If you ever get the chance to miss it, don't".

The show itself sounds bizarrely intriguing. It takes us back in time with Harry and Rhonda who get dragged into the centre of a Broadway musical, seduced into the most absurd sexual acrobatics by the Mammy Nuns and hope to be saved by The Evil Prince, a government scientist by day, theatre critic at night; and his zombie assistants. The synopsis suggests that zany Zappa was influenced, inter alia, by The Rocky Horror Show.

This work is likely to appeal to the thousands of Zappa aficionados around the world. Already, tickets have been selling to people in the USA who are travelling over specially for the world premiere. Wolf is certain that they will be a large contingent from Germany as this is a notorious hotbed of Zappa fever and even puts on an annual Zappanale! There is no doubt that a project of this type will prove interesting to a far wider group and Wolf is extremely confident that the shows will sell-out. He says that "Even though the recording is probably the least defended of Zappa's works, twenty years later people will want to see the only Zappa musical". It is historically interesting, containing some familiar Zappa music but also concepts and songs that are not available anywhere else.

The producers have high hopes for the show. They think that it could be the next Jerry Springer - the Opera, another show that started at BAC and would love to see it follow Jerry to a big stage in Edinburgh, the National Theatre and the West End.

This could present some great logistical problems. Wolf was paying a flying visit to London to collect his MFA in Stage Directing from Middlesex University and will be back for the show but thereafter he is joining Die Badishe Landesbühne on a two-year acting contract. Already he has landed the plum part of Cliff Bradshaw in a new production of Cabaret, set in contemporary Berlin with the music jazzed up using dance grooves. He is then expecting to appear in Much Ado About Nothing, some Goethe and Tankred Dorst's Merlin. In addition, Daniel, who is playing the lead in the show, is currently studying tuba playing and singing in Austria while Tommi also has other major commitments in assorted media. Quite how they will find time to get together to advance this project is uncertain. With the enthusiasm that they have shown for the project to date and given the opportunity, there is little doubt that they will find a way.

The world premiere of Frank Zappa's Thing-Fish runs from 28th to 30th August, 2003 at BAC. Book early on 020 7223 2223.