Review: ‘Waiting for Johnny Depp’ in the Rave Theater Festival

This month marks the premiere of the Rave Theater Festival, playing Off-Off-Broadway at The Clemente Solo Velez Cultural Center, the former home of FringeNYC. Among the 20 works chosen to perform in its inaugural year is Waiting for Johnny Depp, making its East Coast debut after acclaimed runs in Houston (2015) and LA (2016) – and we couldn’t have asked the festival organizers for a better selection! The hilarious high-energy semi-autobiographical solo show provides an inside look at the trials and tribulations of one woman determined to begin a career in acting, inspired by true events in the lives of its creators Janet Cole Valdez and Deedee O’Malley, who co-wrote the book, music (with Arranger Bettie Ross; additional music by Tom Valdez), and lyrics.

Donna Vivino. Photo by Richard Termine.

Unfulfilled by her tedious job as a lab assistant, New York native and resident Rita Donatella decides to forsake the $60,000 education in biology paid for by her parents, to follow her dream of becoming an actress and landing a role in a Johnny Depp film – much to the dismay of her nagging naysaying mother. Willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in her new profession, she fields countless phone calls from her agent, who advises her that she’s “a shoe-in” for the role, if only . . . So she optimistically agrees to the never-ending demands of the production team, from losing weight to losing her accent, cutting her hair and looking more masculine, while depleting her meager savings and selling her possessions, sacrificing time with her supportive brother and wasting time on an opportunistic boyfriend, taking an unsavory part-time job and going to disheartening auditions with demeaning casting directors, all in the fervent belief that the coveted movie contract and the much-needed check will come. But do they? And is that what’s truly important in life?

Under the zany rapid-fire direction of Holly Friedman and choreography by Juson Williams, Broadway veteran Donna Vivino turns in a stellar performance as the eccentric and ebullient Rita (who’s “always been a glass half-full kinda girl”), recounting her wild (but familiar!) journey in direct address to the audience, with whom she uproariously interacts, moving into the aisles, soliciting responses, getting in our faces, and involving us in the sidesplitting non-stop action with full-out unabashed gusto and flawless comedic timing. Through the exhausting roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, Vivino, with her expert acting chops, mellifluous voice, and impressive range, vivaciously captures her character’s commitment and drive (in “Anything for my Craft” and “Craigslist”), along with the humor (telling her lab boss to “Kiss My Ass,” encouraging the audience to sing along to the earthy “W.T.F.,” and rebuking the offensive lyrics of her “Kennedy Audition Song”) and pathos of her situation (“This Time” and “What Really Matters”), as expressed in the musical’s thoroughly entertaining and witty script and score.

Donna Vivino. Photo by Richard Termine.

Vivino is skillfully backed by Musical Director Logan Medland on piano, and supported by laugh-out-loud voice-overs by O’Malley, as her overly critical mother and condescending casting directors, and a poignant message from Rita’s loving brother Tony, sensitively spoken by Michael Duff. The musical narrative is cleverly enhanced by a tacky glam-style apartment (set design by Michael O’Malley) with a decreasing number of objects and furnishings as Rita’s finances worsen, costumes that change with her constant reinventions to be right for the role (costume quick-change by Pernell Walker), and lighting (Ezra Fisher) and sound (Tom Valdez) that underscore the funny plot points and mood.

Lovers of the performing arts will find Waiting for Johnny Depp especially relatable and hysterical, but anyone in any field will recognize the travails of trying to establish yourself in a hoped-for career, and everyone should surely relish the top-notch talents of Vivino and the creators of this irresistible show.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.

Waiting for Johnny Depp plays through Sunday, August 25, 2019, in the Rave Theater Festival, performing at Teatro SEA in The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center – 107 Suffolk Street, NYC. For tickets, purchase them online.