The preshow of HiHo, HiHo, It's Off To Work I Go pegs this show high on the avant-garde potentiometer, as a shrouded figure in a devilish silver mask writhes on a colorful carpet, while a keyboardist plays synthesized pan pipes. Then Phillipe Andre Coquet begins belting “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy while stripping off all his clothes, revealing a lean, graying man in nothing but his underwear. Thus begins 75 minutes of conventional songs and storytelling about an unconventional subject that deserves a better-rehearsed reading than it receives here.
Coquet spent 25 years serving a sociopathic guru in a massage-happy cult that imploded, before becoming a masseur with benefits at age 49. In this autobiographical cabaret, he shares the breadth of his life in sex work — filled with both happy endings and horrific abuse — through the lens of popular music. Between name-dropping childhood reminisces and bite-sized biographies of influential women (like Gypsy Rose Lee, Mae West and Josephine Baker) who elevated the art of striptease and burlesque, Coquet interprets tunes from the great American songbook — such as “Cabaret” and “Big Spender” — that reflect Broadway’s surprisingly long-standing obsession prostitution.
Even though Coquet relies on a giant cue card to keep him “present in his past,” the show is still slowed by an uncertain structure and clunky costume changes with comical wigs. Coquet’s voice is serviceable for patter-style character songs, but he is simply not a particularly strong singer, and he isn’t yet confident enough in reciting his script to fully exploit the emotional impact of his erotic anecdotes.
While HiHo, HiHo is far too undercooked for me to recommend, I was struck by a section involving intrusive interactions with the audience, which I think is sure to spark some heated post-show discussions. And although Coquet made me think more than feel, I’m pleased that Fringe provides a place for artists like him to share such a provocative personal story on stage, and I can fully support his closing musical sentiment that “my body is nobody’s business but my own.”
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