Like a drum kit being hurled down a flight of stairs by a rock star, Keith Moon: The Real Me, a new one-person show written by and starring Mick Berry, has its sublime moments. Chiefly these occur when Berry, who has several one-person performances to his credit and is the author of The Drummer's Bible, is sitting behind a pair of bass drums and an array of cymbals and toms, channeling The Who's legendary drummer, who died in 1978 of an overdose of prescription drugs.
Let's be clear about one thing: Berry is a great drummer, and he nails Moon's multi-layered, off-the-beat style on songs from "I Can't Explain" and "My Generation" to "Bargain" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." The problem is that Berry's play also requires him to act, inhabiting the personas of not just Moon but also Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, Moon's long-suffering assistant Dougal Butler and, in one particularly cringe-inducing scene, Moon's mom.
Alas, despite Berry's experience on the stage, acting is not his strength, just as singing was not Moon's. And like his subject, Berry has been poorly served by those who should have been looking out for him, in this case director Bobby Weinapple, who permits Berry to mug, mince and indicate his way through a series of maudlin monologues and pointless anecdotes that confirm all the clichés about Moon's well-documented antics but tell us little about why rock's greatest drummer was so self destructive. Keith Moon: The Real Me? More like Keith Moon: The Caricature.
The show begins promisingly as Berry and his on-stage bandmates (Ric Wilson on Pete Townshend guitar and Roger Daltrey vocals; Jesse Scott on John Entwistle bass and backing vocals; and Jef Labes on keyboards and backing vocals) launch into "Baba O'Riley." For those of us who have listened to that song perhaps as many times as Moon actually played it, Berry's drumming will not disappoint, but then Berry begins to act, which, in the middle of "Baba O'Riley" means spinning his drumsticks between his fingers. Moon could effortlessly perform this parlor trick when drugged almost to the point of catatonia, but Berry struggles to pull it off, causing him to completely miss some of the song's signature cymbal crashes. Throughout the rest of the evening, Berry would attempt the trick again and again during the play's eight or nine numbers, and each time it would distract him, and us.
By the end of the song, though, Berry and band were back in control, and I was warming to the prospect of an original evening of music and theater. But just as Berry was starting to get into the rhythm of his character, he brought the proceedings to a screeching halt with a call for a volunteer from the audience, whose meager assignment was to pretend he was a young Keith Moon while being yelled at by Berry, who was pretending to be Moon's overbearing father. Fortunately the improv-theater device was not repeated, but that only begged the question: Why do it in the first place? The play is filled with such miscues.
Beyond suggesting that Moon's dad was a bit of a lout, Berry doesn't really give us much insight into why Moon was drawn to the drums, let alone the source of his deep insecurities, which he hid behind so much obvious flamboyance. We witness the story of how a teenage Moon was taught to play the drums by Carlo Little, and here Berry (wearing his drum-instructor hat) is at least on firmer footing, as we get a welcome decoding of the drumming DNA that would define Moon's style. But a few minutes later, when he's supposed to be destroying the first in a long line of Premier drum kits, Berry pushes over his instrument unconvincingly and has to work harder than necessary to force his foot through the bottom of a floor tom. We are not shocked by this display of onstage violence but embarrassed by its timidity. And while I understand that Berry was probably trying to make sure he didn't damage the kit too badly since he's going to need it for the run of the show, his tentativeness undermined an essential aspect of his character's believability, namely, that Moon could be dangerous. Instead, I was bored, which, when it comes to The Who, is something of a sacrilege.
Keith Moon: The Real Me runs through July 28, 2013, at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit brownpapertickets.com.