Theater Review - "King of Pops: A Post-Apocalyptic Musical" is all Atlanta, all day
Corporate layoffs, clones, and LSD can't keep a good king down in the scripted Dad's Garage production
"Eff this place," is something most adult people have thought, said, or felt about their workplace at one time or another. In King of Pops: A Post-Apocalyptic Musical, the Dad's Garage production running at 7 Stages, "F This Place" is the little ditty through which the audience is first introduced to Steven Carse (played by Dad's ensemble member Chris Rittelmeyer).
The year is 2009; the place is deep within the bowels of insurance giant American International Group, Inc. With the economy in shambles, Steven and his co-workers — notably Heidi, played by J. Hill — are painfully aware that their days as AIG employees are numbered. "F This Place" encapsulates the helplessness and frustration that engulfed thousands of workers who lost jobs during the country's economic meltdown.
Disenchanted with the soullessness of corporate America, Steven takes advantage of his layoff and starts a business making and selling frozen pops from a gas station parking lot. If the story doesn't ring a bell, there's a good chance the last five years of your life were not spent in Atlanta.
King of Pops: A Post-Apocalyptic Musical is loosely based on the life of King of Pops co-founder Steven Carse and his company's idyllic, American dream origin story.
It all started in 2010 when Dad's Garage ensemble member Mike Schatz interviewed Carse for "Dad's Garage Radio," a podcast the former does with co-conspirators Lucky Yates and Amber Nash.
"I went out and met Steven at the corner, and I found it fascinating," Schatz says. "Watching him interact with everybody and how endearing the whole experience was just sitting out there ... and how King of Pops became this iconic thing in the city. It has come to represent a bigger idea, which is people who follow their hearts are the people who create the culture. It was inspiring, and it felt authentic and genuine."
In 2009, Carse really was laid off from AIG. And instead of jumping back into the corporate world, he started King of Pops, inspired by the street vendors peddling ice pops (aka paletas) he and his two older brothers had become enamored with on a trip to Central America.
"I didn't hate my job," Carse says. "I just knew that it wasn't the most fulfilling ... People want to be so satisfied, and understandably so, work is what you spend most of your time doing. If you can find something you're passionate about and you can make enough money and have fun doing it, well, that's obviously what we're all looking for."
With the help of friends and his brother Nick, Carse's frozen pops were a massive hit. Since then, the kingdom has grown from a single cart, the original one at the corner of North and North Highland avenues, to a fleet of about 25 to 30 stationed all around Atlanta on an average spring/summer Saturday. The King of Pops crew recently expanded to Turner Field, founded a distribution company for other local food start-ups, and acquired a 70-acre farm in Douglasville, Ga., for growing their own berries, herbs, melons, peppers, and pretty much anything else they can and feel like turning into frozen treats. The company currently employs a full-time staff of 14 and the brand can now be found in seven cities.
More interesting, though, is how the ritual of walking up to a cart, agonizing over what flavor to get right up until its your turn in line, and even the particular way Carse snipped a pop's clear plastic wrapper before handing it over feels like a new-old Atlanta tradition. ATLiens didn't know they were missing (or even wanted) such a tradition until Carse transformed his rainbow umbrella'd cart into a fixture of the Buddy's gas station parking lot. These days, few local brands are as influential as King of Pops.
For several years after his meeting with Carse, Schatz talked about doing a King of Pops show. He pitched the idea to Dad's Garage in 2014, and decided it would be his first stab at a musical. He started writing, working with melodies, and singing songs into his phone. Ultimately, he joined forces with Dad's Garage ensemble member and first-time director Tom Rittenhouse, and composers Ben Holst, Jason Shannon, and James Watson.
The musical has a six-member cast, with each actor playing multiple parts. Schatz also enlisted the help of local music production company Tunewelders to produce and orchestrate the show, and commissioned Awesome Inc. studio to do custom animation and illustrations that, when projected onto the stage, create evocative, scene-setting backdrops.
Through Carse's story, Schatz recognized an opportunity to document a slice of Atlanta culture while also examining the tension between independent, mom-and-pop enterprises and the corporate business world. To prepare, Schatz did his homework, conducting several interviews (aka getting drunk with Carse at a bar and talking late into the night). He even worked a shift selling pops.
"I don't think I was very good at it," Schatz says. "But it was also in the pouring rain. I sold one pop, a Chocolate sea salt, I think ... It was kind of ridiculous how excited people looked, and there's a line in one of the songs where buying yourself a pop is a good part of the day. This little moment amid all the crappy traffic and everything and you're like, 'Oh, a Popsicle.' That's nice."
The first half of the first act is vaguely rooted in real-life events. But soon after Steven launches his cart and falls in with fellow vendors Baby Bear (Mark Kendall), Smaghetti Sally (Karen Cassady), and Johnny (played by Schatz) at the Food Truck Underground, the plot explodes into a fictional world where the indie food trucks are threatened by an army of mindless corporate clones controlled by the evil overlord, er, over-lady, Gia (Gina Rickicki). Things get desperate when Gia — fueled by a relentless and insatiable devotion to the bottom line — ramps up her campaign for total market share domination. The good guys clearly need a hero, and fast. With the fate of the free food truck world resting on Steven's shoulders, the unlikely warrior must find a way to thwart Gia and her legions of nefarious goons.
Despite the silliness of the whole affair, the show offers many gem-like moments of poignancy and insight. There are morals to this story: follow your passions; don't be an asshole; fight the power; and LSD is bad for business, usually. But the music and the dialogue drive the plot without ever feeling too heady or self-important. In fact, the show's hilarious and wildly talented cast members manage to inject laughter and lightness into every twist and turn. Even more impressive: Schatz's writing frequently and elegantly taps into the ether of Atlanta pop culture making it hard to watch without feeling a twinge of hometown pride. It's like being in on an inside joke between you and ATL. To get it, you just have to be here.