Club is Hell in Thrillpeddlers’ latest hoot

Hilarious glam rock musical ‘Club Inferno’ literally drags us through Dante, now through Sept. 12. 

48 Hills: Thrillpeddlers Club Inferno
Noah Haydon as Cleopatra and Peggy L’Eggs as Dante in Thrillpeddlers’ ‘Club Inferno.’ Photo by davidallenstudio.com.

By Marke B

ONSTAGE/PARTY RADAR I’ve written about debaucherous parties for 20 years now, and attended them for 30 — and yes, some nightlife moments have indeed felt like Hell, my soul wandering a god-forsaken wasteland for what seemed like eternity. (Looking at you, Ruby Skye.)

But I’ve never attended an actual party in Hell — unless you count all those awkward Halloween themes — and definitely no party as riotously fun as glam rock musical Club Inferno, the latest outing from our fabulously shoestring underground burlesque/cabaret stage company the Thrillpeddlers (at Hypnodrome through August 8).

Who knew Hell was full of drag queens? (OK, we all did.)

48 Hills: Thrillpeddlers Club Inferno
Noah Haydon with Thrillpeddlers players in ‘Club Inferno.’ Photo by davidallenstudio.com

Bursting at the seams with rock excess and hoary one-liners, the kind that actually seem funnier when they don’t quite land, Club Inferno transforms Dante’s Inferno into a camp cabaret, replete with preening guitar solos, mile-high wigs, sexual innuendo, and, of course, guest appearances by Judy Garland.

For the past six years, the Thrillpeddlers have been reviving some seminal gems from the 70s, as they remount several severely queer Cockettes plays. (They’ve also featured new works by former Cockettes members.) Now, the Peddlers have leapt ahead a couple decades to showcase a piece originally performed by legendary ’90s clubkid collective the Tuck and Roll players. As eternally effervescent company director Russell Blackwood puts it, “Now we’re taking a leap ahead to highlight the work of the next generation of theater queens, who were influenced by the Cockettes.” Very cool.

So here’s the shaggy story: Dante (the endlessly leggy, wide-eyed, and always-game Peggy L’Eggs) is a cabaret singer, who one night meets her sudden, possible end in a hilarious accident as she’s exiting stage left one night. She finds herself in fiery Hades, accompanied by a hunky Virgil (a fine-voiced John Flaw) and bargaining with a grumpy, seen-it-all Xaron for a glass of ice water and a ride across the Styx.

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48 Hills: Thrillpeddlers Club Inferno
Birdie-Bob Watt as Xaron, John Flaw as Virgil, and Peggy L’Eggs as Dante in Thrillpeddlers’ Club Inferno. Photo by davidallenstudio.com

That ride would be an elevator, of course, as we descend through Dante’s nine circles of Hell, here transformed into cabaret vignettes teeming with celebrity impersonations, goofy sight gags, and gloriously silly dance numbers — all backed by an ace live band (Steve Bolinger on guitar, Tommy Salami on drums, Tim Perdue on bass) whose tight tunes carry us through the various levels and  some of the glitchier moments of the production.

Xaron is played by original Tuck and Roll Player Birdie-Bob Watt (other original Players are involved as well), a perfect sourpuss in a fright wig and revealing cigarette girl/elevator boy ensemble who sometimes seems to have wandered in from another production (Rocky Horror Picture Show, maybe) but you can’t take your eyes off her.

48 Hills: Thrillpeddlers Club Inferno
Leigh Crow as Mama Cass and Amber Sommerfeld as Karen Carpenter in Thrillpeddlers’ Club Inferno. Photo by davidallenstudio.com

Other faces and moments induce vertiginous feelings of ’90s camp. The bright voice and unmistakable swagger of the great Leigh Crow filled me with nostalgia for those theatrical-anarchic times, when I was a wide-eyed young gay peeping up from the floorboards at these strange stage concoctions. Crow and Amber Sommerfeld’s bluesy, down-home duet as Mama Cass and Karen Carpenter in, where else, the Circle of Gluttony, was probably a lot more uproariously shocking back then, but now it shimmers with a tinge of melancholy. Likewise ingenue Noah Haydon’s shining take on the lustful Cleopatra, which offers some clues as to how far we’ve come in accepting female sexual prowess as more than a tragic flaw in the intervening years.

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Meanwhile, David Bicha as Amy Semple McPherson, looking like a deranged Shirley Temple in the Circle of Fraud, brings down the house with a barnstorming gospel revival number (don’t worry if you don’t know who McPherson is, you will), while glamorous, headless trio Marie Antoinette, Isadora Duncan, and Jayne Mansfield (at this point I didn’t know which Circle of Hell we were in) provided a musical highlight, a sweet decapitation doo-wop that balanced out some of the rock bluster.

Only complaint: we needed more mic on the voices, which were sometimes hard to catch in the mix. But as Dante herself might say, “Oh, what the hell!”

PS Be on the lookout for stars in the audience: in attendance on the night I went were Peaches Christ, Lady Bear, and the cast of alternative talk show Under the Golden Gate.

THRILLPEDDLERS PRESENT CLUB INFERNO
Thu-Sat through Sept. 12, 8pm, $30-$35
The Hypnodrome
575 10th St, SF.
Tickets and more info here.