Oh! Calcutta!'s on-stage run lasted a remarkable 17 years, but it's still safe to assume that most Americans knew the show largely as fodder for Johnny Carson monologues. Decades before Viagra, Monica Lewinsky, or Brokeback Mountain, Oh! Calcutta! served an instant punchline, a provocative "nudie musical" that delighted in pushing square America's buttons.
Oh! Calcutta! was a landmark in the sexual revolution, but the DVD release of an early television production of the show reveals it to be far more ambivalent about the rising tide of sexual exploration than its reputation suggests. The tension between the constricting but reassuring confines of conventional sexuality and the scary but exhilarating new realm of the sexual revolution powers many of its wildly uneven skits. The show opens with a peek-a-boo striptease that immediately delivers on the promise of male and female nudity. It then segues into a queasily disturbing skit set in an outsized child's playroom, where an actor and actress dressed as storybook characters engage in an unnerving recreation of childhood sexual exploration that leads to violent sexual assault. Chuckling yet? A smorgasbord of comedic styles follow, from bone-dry archness to Love, American Style slickness to zany Benny Hill-style lascivious slapstick, complete with gratuitous use of a slide whistle.
Though never exactly tight, consistent, or particularly funny, Oh! Calcutta! finally becomes insufferable as it nears the end of its interminable two-hour running time. An endless nude dance sequence only proves that naked interpretive dance is somehow just as obnoxious as the clothed variety. With contributions by such countercultural icons as John Lennon, Sam Shepard, Samuel Beckett, and Jules Feiffer, Oh! Calcutta! was conceived as much as a happening and a provocation as it was a proper musical, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that it often feels shapeless and self-indulgent. More than three decades later, the show feels less like a raucous celebration of the sexual revolution than like a trippy elegy for a swinging party that was already nearing its end.
Key features: Some cast bios and a trailer.