Funk act finds theater through Polyphone

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 Martha Stuckey, frontwoman of Red 40 and the Last Groovement, (out of costume).(Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Martha Stuckey, frontwoman of Red 40 and the Last Groovement, (out of costume).(Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

This week, the University of the Arts’ Ira Brind School of Theater Arts is hosting Polyphone, a festival of theatrical musicals that are not quite ready for prime time.

Now in its second year, Polyphone gives full production crew and equipment to musicals that are still in development, to help them find their feet. One of this year’s selections is a local funk band trying to find its groove.

Red 40 and the Last Groovement, a 10-piece funk act, first got together in 2013 at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Theater. It was supposed to be a quick way to fulfill a class assignment before graduating.

Seemingly by the force of its own funk, the band kept on keeping on.

Their high shtick costumes and sex-positive raunch made them house band for FringeArts, the performance venue and restaurant along the Philadelphia waterfront. Last year the band released a record, “She’s Keen to Feed.”

“I’ve called us ‘funk clowns making sexy noises,'” said Martha Stuckey, co-founder and frontwoman. “But a friend told me, ‘Don’t ever mention clown again. Clown turns people off. Don’t say clowns.'”

The band is not the greasepaint-and-big-shoes kind of clowns, but clowns in the tradition of commedia dell’arte: Fools doing a lot of physical play, who move among the audience as much as on stage. It’s a style the members of the band studied at the Pig Iron school.

For all their goofy antics, the band has serious musical and theatrical chops. Stuckey, a trained opera singer, plays the lead character named Red 40, wearing a huge red wig and heavy makeup, singing come-hither funk with growls and trills more common to R&B.

“I grew up listening to divas — Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler. I was listening to Mariah Carey in the ’90s, and I loved Brandy,” said Stuckey. “I’m from Minnesota, singing in church. You don’t sing like that. In Red 40, I found a platform to sing in a way I love to sing.”

After four years of building a fan base and a repertoire of original songs, the band wants to return to its theatrical roots and turn the act into a musical, with a plot and characters and dialogue.

They’ve been tinkering with a storyline about a year. The Polyphone festival, and its offer of a fully staged production, was the impetus to get seriously clowning.

“Red 40 has a sister named Proxis,” said Stuckey, explaining the storyline. “Proxis steals the Star Stuff that Red 40 and the Last Groovement tend and cultivate, because they are conduits for Shine. But Proxis, being jealous and feeling everyone needs to flatten so she can stand out, steal the Star Stuff and separates the band – because that is also a source of their power.”

Stuckey says the tale involves a car trip, an accumulation of characters, and google eyes, making it appear to be a cross between “The Muppet Movie and “The Blues Brothers.”

“I don’t know ‘The Blues Brothers,’ actually,” admitted Stuckey. “My dad will be really mad at me.”

The Polyphone Festival will present four musicals in various stages of development, performed in a rotating schedule all week. On Saturday, they will be performed back-to-back, as invited theater producers from New York will come to scout out the next big thing.

Polyphone will feature:

Folk Wandering

(March 28 & 31 at 8 p.m.; April 1 at 12 p.m.; Merriam Theater)

Normativity

(March 28 & 31 at 8 p.m.; April 1 at 9 p.m.; Arts Bank)

The Real Whisper

(March 29 & 30 at 8 p.m.; April 1 at 6 p.m.; Merriam Theater)

The Best Songs in the World Show 

(March 29 & 30 at 8 p.m.; April 1 at 3 p.m.; Arts Bank)

 

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