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Fame a flickering ember in ‘Club Inferno’

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Birdie-Bob Watt, left, and Peggy L’Eggs appear in Thrillpeddlers’ “Club Inferno,” a rock musical journey through Dante’s circles of hell. COURTESY DAVIDALLENSTUDIO.COM

Attending a Thrillpeddlers performance is making a pilgrimage to creatively twisted insanity…or insanely twisted creativity. The troupe’s intention is to startle, disarm and turn theatrical conventions on their bejeweled ear. “Sissies stay home,” indeed!

With that in mind, what may be the most startling and disarming aspect of “Club Inferno” – promoted as a theater of the ridiculous revival – is the absolutely conventional trope propelling this revival of a 2000 musical dragstravaganza with music by Peter Fogel, libretto by Kelly Kittell and lyrics by both.

Desperate disco diva Dante (Peggy L’Eggs aka Matthew Simmons) is watching the last seconds of her 15 minutes evaporate. Angry and scared, she lashes out at her life and life lashes back with a klieg light to the head. What follows is a lesson-laden journey through nine rings of hell to discover there’s no place like home.

Her cohorts for the journey are proponent Virgil (John Flaw) and irascible antagonist Xaron (Birdie-Bob Watt). The latter operates the Hellevator, ascending them though a demented “Divine Comedy” store of ill-fated femmes.

Cleopatra (Noah Haydon), Judy Garland (Zelda Koznofski), Joan of Arc (Amber Somerfeld), Lucretia Borgia (Leigh Crow) and Aimee Semple McPherson (David Bicha) are just a few of the legendary ladies telling tales of woe.

Casting at Thrillpeddlers productions can feel like an exercise of style over substance. Simmons can be funny and has a fetchingly tragic-fragile and haunted-hunted quality – a haggard Michelle Pfeiffer trapped in a slasher movie. Unfortunately, his grating vocals in the opening number are not just an effect to underscore Dante’s has-been status.

Flaw fares better, effectively adopting what one character describes as a “donate to public television” voice. Watt is a master chameleon and should take out a patent on his deadpan dour disdaining looks hovering over a gravelly growl.

Director Russell Blackwood keeps Act 1 plates spinning to a cleverly heady finale featuring Marie Antoinette, Isadora Duncan and Jayne Mansfield. (Pun seriously intended.) Act 2 invites a bit of ring counting before it redeems itself with a one-two punch.

The first blow to lethargy is the powerhouse turn “Little White Lies” that Bicha-as-McPherson – looking like Lois Nettleton drenched in rapture –  turns into a soaring, blistering anthem that demands an “Amen” roar back. Happily spent, “Reach for the Stars” offers a solid all-hands-on-deck finale.

Through it all, costumes sparkle and hair flies high. Yet the sound needs remixing so songs can be heard through the amped rock ‘n’ roll passion provided by Steve Bolinger, Tim Perdue and Tommy Salami in a bitchin’ band frequently augmented with Flaw, Watt and other company member instrumentals.

Club Inferno
Presented by Thrillpeddlers
Where: Hypnodrome, 575 10th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; closes Aug. 8
Tickets: $30 to $35
Contact: (415) 377-4202, www.thrillpeddlers.com

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