When you ask someone if they know who Joey Arias is, the answer you get will depend on the person you ask.
New Yorkers will likely be able to tell you he’s a longtime fixture of the Manhattan performance art and cabaret scene who’s been doing his best to make the city queer since the seventies, when he staged and performed fashion shows with his co-workers in the storefront windows at Fiorucci.
Others might know him from his association with queer disco icon Klaus Nomi, or his lengthy stint with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, or from his mind-blowing collaboration show with puppeteer Basil Twist, “Arias with a Twist.”
Many will be aware of him as a pioneering drag artist and a regular performer at Wigstock; and most, though they may know nothing else about him, will at least remember him from his appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1979, when he and Nomi danced and sang backup for David Bowie in three now-iconic musical numbers.
“Imagine spending a week with David,” he reminisced to the Blade during a conversation we had with him last week. “Rehearsing for hours, and talking and having fun with him. And then, right before we were going on for that first song, we were standing there and he said, ‘After today your lives are going to change.’ And then we all laughed and we walked out onto the stage, with me and Klaus carrying David.”
Arias, who performs at LA’s Catalina Jazz Club at 7pm on October 20, is understandably proud of – and still a little starstruck by, perhaps – that experience, but it’s not the definitive moment of his career, no matter how famous it might be. Nor does he think of his reputation as a drag pioneer as his crowning achievement – in fact, he tells us, “I always HATED drag.”
It seems an odd statement from someone who spent his childhood, inspired by the films his parents frequently took him to see and the cartoons, books, and comic books that fed his imagination, dressing up and recreating them when he was left alone in the house.
As an example, he told us of a time he convinced some other boys in the neighborhood to join him for a re-enactment of “Cleopatra,” with him decked out like Liz (with some help from his mother’s makeup kit) and the other boys in their underwear, of course. Mom and Dad came home early, that time, he recalls.
Laughing, he recalls, “My mother was screaming, ‘Oh my God, you look like Cleopatra, what did I do to you?’ And here I am, seven years old, doing all this!”
Dressing up was always – and still is – something he loved to do. “I never thought of it as drag,” he insists. “If I liked something, I would dress like that – it could be a cowboy, for instance, only it would be something like an alien cowboy.”
Years later, in New York, friends would take him to drag bars and he would want to leave (“I’d see a guy on the stage doing Barbra Streisand and I would be like, ‘Let’s get OUT of here!’”), but then an opportunity came that he couldn’t refuse; he was invited to Andy Warhol’s Halloween Party, and the theme was drag.
“My friends helped me get dressed up, and I came up with this character named Justine DeSade. When I showed up, everyone was like, ‘Wow, who are YOU?,” and Andy came up and he was taking pictures, saying “Wow, wow!” He leaned up and whispered to me ‘Who are you really,’ and I told him my name and he said, ‘You need to stay like this all the time.’”
He was still resistant to it, however, but when Lady Bunny persuaded him to do Justine at Wigstock, her appearance there became an annual tradition. That led to more requests, including a drag calendar, Queens of New York (“All the girls were like, ‘What? You put Miss Arias on the cover? She isn’t even a drag queen!”), and bookings to perform his popular cabaret singing act in drag. Realizing, finally, that he was being paid less to perform as a man than as a woman, he deciced, “I think I’m going to be doing drag now.”
“Then drag became like the punk of the nineties,” he says, “and now it’s mainstream.”
That’s why, in the last few years, he’s distanced himself from the word “drag.”
“The minute you say it, people go to RuPaul,” he explains. “They don’t see the image of what I do now, which is more, just, androgyny – otherworldly, beautiful, chic, elegant, silhouette-y, you know? I look at it like a Kabuki actor, or a Geisha. That’s my influence too, I studied Geisha dancing, I did some Kabuki work in Japan – it’s all about beauty, graceful movements, it’s other-worldly, it’s minimal and gorgeous. ’Drag Race’ is incredible, but it’s not me. I don’t do it like that.”
It’s this graceful, other-worldly persona he feels most at home in when he performs – when he sings, really, because he has always thought of himself as a singer more than many of the other things for which he has become legendary. “I feel free, I feel good, I feel high on life and imagery, on making people smile and dream,” he tells us. “I want them to hear beautiful music that makes you think, with smart lyrics, and to look and the stage and say, ‘Look at this beauty, look at this dream!”
When pressed to define this androgynous stage presence as something separate from “drag,” he says he prefers to simply call it “Joey.”
That’s a reflection of the way he’s always felt about gender presentation, a rejection of labels that seems very much in tune with the increasing visibility of the trans and non-binary people as a part of the queer community at large. “All that stuff is right out there now,” he gushes. “It’s right in your face. That’s why all these politicians are freaking out.”
Yet though queer culture may finally be catching up to him, don’t expect Joey Arias to rest on his laurels.
“I mean, I’m older now, but there’s so much more to do,” he tells us. “I’m still on the warpath, performing and expanding people’s minds.”
He ruminates for a moment, then reflects, “I feel like I am part of a new consciousness. We live in a different time, everything is going so fast, there are things we don’t even know about that are there already, waiting for us. I say, ‘Let’s go!’ It’s easy to think about giving up, but there are always more dreams, more hope. Just keep going!
With a sly chuckle, he concludes, “Remember, it’s always the last inch that counts.”
Captivating topic, great cast, but falls short on real issue
Rogue Machine Theatre’s recent run of “A Great Wilderness” is reviewed by the founder of the Conversion Therapy Dropout Network
By Curtis Galloway | LOS ANGELES – Rogue Machine Theatre’s recent run of “A Great Wilderness”, written by Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Elina de Santos, was a harrowing story, to say the least. It explores the complex ideas behind conversion therapy or sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts.
As a conversion therapy survivor, I knew that I needed to see this production as I am always more than happy to see conversations about this topic. While the cast was excellent and the overall theatrical presentation was entertaining and very engaging, I feel that the script itself lacked direction and proper handling of the main topic, conversion therapy.
The show opens in an old cabin, which we will stay in for the duration of the story, with the two main characters, Daniel & Walt, standing off in silent opposition. Daniel, a teenager, has just been sent away to a remote cabin run by Walt, an elderly man that is about to be moved into an assisted living home. We learn quickly that Daniel was sent there by his mother after he was caught watching homosexual pornography, and Walt is known for “helping” kids change their sexual orientation through religious means. To be plain, Walt is a “conversion therapist” and has been running a conversion camp with his friend Tim and ex-wife Abby.
Over the course of two hours, Daniel goes missing in the woods, Abby and Walt reveal that their son was gay and committed suicide due to their attempts to have his sexual orientation changed, and Daniel’s mother seemingly prefers her son stay missing rather than face the world that she knows is unkind to “people like him”.
There is no doubt, that the show had a fantastic cast. The six characters were neatly defined as their own individuals with distinct personalities and lives of their own. Each action was meaningful and thought out, to the smallest detail. The emotion brought through each character enticed you to believe that it was actually happening before your eyes. It was everything good casting should be.
My main issue with the production sat in the script, specifically the sympathy it garnered for Walt as a conversion therapist.
From personal experience, when talking about conversion therapy and specifically the conversion therapist, we need to be careful not to create a sympathetic tone. A Great Wilderness focused too much on the life and struggles of a conversion therapist that, in his old age, is trying to come to terms with his life, the mistakes he has made, and his past attractions.
This brings feelings of sympathy and emotional connection to the character, that does not deserve sympathy. One character notes that they knew Walt through the community as a weird old man that abuses children in his cabin by trying to make them straight. They noted that as they grew to know him they realized that people will say what they want, but they knew he “never harmed those kids”.
Toward the end of the show, we get the initial beginnings that Walt is starting to doubt the conversion therapy he has been providing his whole life, but we never really get to him denouncing it or talk directly about it.
At the end, we finally get to see Daniel stumble back into the cabin after being missing in the woods. He describes seeing flames (from a wildfire nearby) and having a revelation from God that he can change and that he wants to pursue what Walt initially set out to do, make Daniel straight.
For me, this left the door way too open for interpretation that, yes, conversion therapy is bad, but what this guy did really wasn’t. It misses the whole point and ideology behind why conversion therapy exists in the first place. Anti-LGBTQ sentiments that something is wrong with the individual are at the heart of all of it, and no amount of feel good cabin, “I just want to help” can cover that up.
Overall, the production of “A Great Wilderness” was captivating and fantastic. The cast did an amazing job and they should all be proud, as should the theatre. I left having mixed feelings, as you have now read, but I stand by my evaluation that it casts too much sympathy on a character that has spent his life making other’s lives worse and more confusing.
Curtis D. Galloway is the Founder & President of Conversion Therapy Dropout Network in Los Angeles, California. Curtis grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois. When he was 16 years old he was subjected to conversion therapy; an experience he was later able to use to ban conversion therapy in his home state.
Now living in L.A., Curtis has taken his activism to the next level and founded the Conversion Therapy Dropout Network to bring survivors of conversion therapy together in community and solidarity.
An ‘Inheritance’ we deserve
What I will say instead is that while watching “The Inheritance” I felt like I was watching my own life being enacted on the stage
Once in a while, a reviewer can find themselves stymied by the sheer force of the impact they felt from the thing they are meant to impartially review.
For one reviewer, at least, “The Inheritance” is just such a thing.
That’s why, in tackling the challenge of communicating my response to this epic play, I have set aside my usual policy of “keeping myself out of the equation” and instead decided to adopt a first-person, subjective voice – for it would be impossible for me to pretend that there wasn’t something personal about my relationship with it. I would argue, in fact, that such a pretense would be impossible for any gay man, because “The Inheritance” is about each and every one of us.
Written by Matthew López and divided into two full-length parts, it’s loosely adapted from – or rather, inspired by – gay author E.M. Forster’s classic 1910 novel “Howards End.” Instead of dealing with the mores and customs of Edwardian English society, it’s a contemporary story set in New York, focused on a group of gay men living in the years after AIDS decimated an entire generation of their friends and elders.
That’s all I knew when I walked in the door of the theatre, apart from its production history – an acclaimed and award-winning 2018 London premiere directed by Stephen Daldry, followed by a multi-Tony-winning transfer to Broadway the subsequent year – and its reputation for inducing a powerful cathartic response from LGBTQ+ audiences. That’s all you really need to know, too.
In the West Coast premiere production staged by director Mike Donahue at the Geffen Playhouse, I worried that the New York setting might feel a little out-of-step with the Los Angeles queer community, but it didn’t take long for me to attune myself to the vast landscape of common ground lying just beneath the surface details.
As I watched actors assuming their positions on the stage before showtime, carrying laptops and books and getting comfortable in a way that evoked a casual afternoon at Starbucks more than an austere theatrical presentation, I was struck by a feeling of being among them, rather than apart.
When someone on the stage finally spoke, that feeling did not disappear; it lingered and remained a part of my perspective even across the lengthy dinner break between the show’s three-hour-plus parts, and even when the players assumed a more traditionally theatrical approach in telling the massive story.
That story, like all great stories, is made up of many smaller stories, each layered and intersecting among the others. Its major figures – long-term couple Eric and Toby (Adam Kantor and Juan Castano), child-of-privilege Adam and down-on-his-luck hustler Leo (both Bradley James Tejada), and older couple Walter and Henry (Bill Brochtrup and Tuc Watkins) – move between past and present, moment and memory, even actor and character, surrounded by an ensemble of others who step in and out of roles as required.
Together, at the prompting and with the guidance of E.M. Forster himself (Brochtrup, again), they enact a sweeping tale that encompasses a hundred years of history and more, in which each of their individual fates is decided by a chain of events and choices that extends far beyond themselves.
To say more about the narrative would be both difficult and unfair. My readers should be afforded the opportunity, just as I was, to let it all unfold as it happens.
When they do, they might find themselves caught up, perhaps even despite themselves. I confess, when I took my seat before the performance, I was carrying a bit of healthy skepticism. Surely, I thought, the play could not live up to all the hyperbolic buzz which surrounded it; after all, hadn’t reviews for the Broadway production been mixed? Hadn’t some critics demerited the piece for being shallow, or for diverging into lengthy debates about queer culture and political ideology?
My skepticism lasted only until the first moment I felt tears unexpectedly welling up behind my eyes. It came remarkably soon, over a simple throwaway line that conjured such a primal response that I reacted to it before my critical brain had a chance to understand why.
This was a phenomenon that repeated itself countless times throughout the play; more than that, there were many moments, cumulatively built, that engaged my intellect yet still overwhelmed me with emotional response. It’s rare for me, as a longtime veteran of watching theatre, to be fully moved in this way – and the fact that it happened not once, but numerous times throughout “The Inheritance,” was an unexpected gift I was grateful to receive.
In expressing that gratitude, I must single out some among the individuals responsible, but it should be acknowledged that, for me, there was not a single weak link in the chain.
Brochtrup, distinctly differentiating his two important roles with the skill of a seasoned thespian, also captures the things which connect them with shimmering clarity; Kantor’s Eric is as endearingly real as the best gay friend you’ve ever known; Castano’s Toby is a dynamo, electrifying to watch and dominating the stage – appropriately so – during every scene he’s in; Tejada (who joined the production as a last-minute replacement after an injury required a previously cast actor to depart the role) is heartbreakingly vulnerable in each of his dual roles, and compelling in his ostensible position as the central voice of the narrative; Watkins’ Henry, who must surmount the challenge of being likable in a role which positions him as an antagonist, succeeds with his understated, close-to-the-chest performance in doing exactly that; and lastly, Indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal is a blessing in a late-appearing role that gives her a chance to distill the myriad emotions we’ve felt so far into a single, profoundly resonant monologue –delivered without a trace of manipulative sentimentality.
I could talk about more. I could talk about Jamie Todd’s scenic design or Josh Epstein’s lighting or Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes, but my praise for each of these elements can be conveyed appropriately by saying they are executed with elegant and effective simplicity; I could list all the awards the piece has won in its previous productions, but you can easily look that up yourself. I could discuss themes and literary references, or the metaphoric application of the title to the play itself, but that would be pedantic.
What I will say instead is that while watching “The Inheritance” I felt like I was watching my own life being enacted on the stage. I recognized myself and every gay person I have ever known in every character, and my own history and experience reflected in thousands of ways, both large and small, throughout.
This was more than a play, it was a tribal ritual, an invocation of community connection and shared experience that stretches back across millennia and forward into an uncharted and uncertain future. In seeing it, I felt seen – an expression never fully comprehended until lived firsthand.
It made me proud of my queer heritage; it made me feel lucky and honored to be a gay man.
Who can ask for a better inheritance than that?
Out & About: Performing arts in Los Angeles this weekend
LA’s Theatre scene is back in full swing for fans of queer LA theatre, as Off-Broadway hit “Daddy Issues” plus “(Un)Documents” opens
Queer LatinX solo show performance ‘(Un)documents’ to receive West Coast premiere
LA’s Theatre scene is back in full swing at last, and that means fans of the kind of small, independent, and edgy productions that can only be found in a city like ours have plenty of plays to choose when going out to satisfy that theatrical itch.
Fans of queer theatre will want to take note of one such show that is opening this weekend (October 14): the West Coast premiere of “(Un)Documents,” presented by the Latino Theater Company.
Written and performed by queer actor, theatermaker and poet Jesús I. Valles, who immigrated to the U.S with their family at the age of nine. It’s described as “the lyrical tale of Valles’s journey across both sides of a river with two names, moving between languages to find their place in a nation that demands sacrifice at the altar of citizenship. In doing so, they create a new kind of documentation written with anger, fierce love, and the knowledge that what makes us human can never be captured on a government questionnaire.”
The multiple award-winning solo work – which is directed by Rudy Ramirez – was adapted from a series of 20 poems Valles wrote following their brother’s deportation in a workplace raid — poems about their brother, citizenship, identity and the LGBTQ community. premiered at Austin, Texas’ The Vortex Theatre in 2018, as part of “FuturX: A New Festival of Latinx Performance,” where it won awards for original script, lead actor and direction, and was remounted several times before being streamed live by Latino Theater Company as part of “RE:Encuentro 2021,” a virtual, national Latinx theater festival featuring 16 companies and performers from across the U.S. in digital residence at The Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Says Valles, “I learned early on what some people are able to do or unable to do, all based on a few pieces of paper and, you know, some holograms on some plastic. ‘(Un)Documents’ asks the audience to rethink how they watch and talk about migrant communities, queer people of color, systems of oppression – and to ask questions of themselves and those in positions of power.”
Performances take place October 14 through November 20 at The Los Angeles Theatre Center in Downtown LA. Tickets and more information (including up-to-date Covid-19 safety protocols on the day of each performance) are available by calling (213) 489-0994 or visiting the Latino Theatre Company website.
Queer Off-Broadway hit ‘Daddy Issues’ comes to LA
How far will a gay guy go to please his controlling Jewish parents?
Fans of queer LA theatre can find out the answer to this question beginning on October 14, when the Off-Broadway hit “Daddy Issues” opens for its West Coast premiere at the Complex in Hollywood.
Written and directed by David Goldyn, the play – which enjoyed a sold-out fun at the St. Clements Theatre in New York – is an exhuberant screwball comedy which starts our slow before snowballing into an outrageous farce. It hinges a couple (Mr. and Mrs. Moscowitz) who are in denial about their son Donald’s gay lifestyle, disapprove of his career choice, and question his flair for decoration. To get his family to stop kvetching, Donald needs a son – so he enlists the help of his ballsy best friend Henrietta and a rising drag queen named Levi, and hires a ten-year-old kid from downstairs. As the official synopsis asks, “What could go wrong?”
According to Goldyn, his play was inspired by an real-life incident he had in dealing with his own overbearing parents. “All the characters are based on real people,” he adds. “Although many of the most outrageous lines may sound like they belong in a sit-com, they actually came straight out of the mouths of my mother, father and grandma.”
The Off-Broadway production was called by the Huffington Post, “[a] frothy, whipped gelatin dessert of a show,” and the Times Square Chronicles described it as laugh out loud funny.”
Goldyn himself directs the West Coast premiere, which stars James Seifert stars as Donald, a gay “everyman” who can only react to all the craziness going on around him. Donald’s homophobic father, Sid, is played by Jonathan Fishman, while Pamela Shaw takes on the role of Marion, Donald’s funny, somewhat screwy mother who loves to quote Reader’s Digest. Noa Lev–Ari and Josh Nadler play his best friends, zaftig Henrietta and drag queen-by-night Levi. Rounding out the cast are Sherry Michaels as Grandma, Hannah Battersby as Donald’s downstairs neighbor, and Solly Werner as precocious 10-year-old Johnny Walker. The play is presented by Charles Blondeau.
Performances of “Daddy Issues” run from Oct. 14 through Nov. 13 at The Complex (6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood). For tickets and more info, go to daddyissuestheplay.com.
“Hamilton” creators donate monetary damages to LGBTQ+ group
A Texas church performed an unauthorized production of the acclaimed Broadway musical with the addition of homophobic content
MCALLEN, Tx – Capping a three-week conflict that attracted national media attention, the creators of “Hamilton” said they will donate monetary damages collected from a Texas church that performed an unauthorized production of the acclaimed Broadway musical and altered it with the addition of homophobic content.
A statement published on Instagram Tuesday on behalf of Door Christian Fellowship McAllen Church (“Door McAllen”) and its pastor Roman Gutierrez apologizes to the creator and producers of “Hamilton” for using the music and dialogue and changing them without permission.
While the post made no acknowledgement of Door McAllen’s choice to liken homosexuality to drug and alcohol addiction in its unauthorized alteration of its unauthorized production on August 5, “Hamilton” affirmed its support for the LGBTQ+ community with the decision to give the monetary damages to the South Texas Equality Project.
The LGBTQ+ group did not immediately respond to requests for comment on its pending receipt of the damages, whose value has not been disclosed.
“Hamilton” fans discovered the performance after Door McAllen streamed the show on its YouTube channel, where it was subsequently cut into clips that were widely circulated on Twitter and other social media platforms – often accompanied by the hashtag #Scamalton and objections to musical’s adulteration.
Many of the clips show the scene in which Victor Lopez, another Door McAllen pastor, delivers a sermon in which he says: “Maybe you struggle with alcohol, with drugs — with homosexuality — maybe you struggle with other things in life, your finances, whatever. God can help you tonight.”
In addition to its homophobia, the online attention exposed what theater blog OneStage called Door McAllen’s “perfect storm” of copyright and intellectual property (IP) law violations: “The church did not have permission to perform the show, make changes to its lyrics, use its logo, use copyrighted music as a backing track, advertise the production, and stream it on YouTube.”
“Hamilton” Creator Lin Manuel Miranda was made aware of the unauthorized production of his musical amid the growing backlash against it, issuing a statement where he said, “Grateful to all of you who reached out about this illegal, unauthorized production. Now lawyers do their work.”
OneStage noted that Door McAllen’s apology on Instagram “does not admit wrongdoing” with respect to the church’s unauthorized stage productions of “Disney’s Beauty & the Beast,” “Despicable Me,” and “Elf: The Musical,” which contained similar anti-LGBTQ+ alterations.
Playwright queers a famous president in ‘Lavender Men’
If you’re one of those hardcore LA theatre aficionados who truly love unique & intimate live productions it’s time to consider diving back
LOS ANGELES – While you may have noticed that theatre venues like the Ahmanson and the Pantages have made a triumphant return from the COVID shutdowns, LA’s smaller theatre spaces – those who managed to make it through without closing permanently, that is – are still struggling to rebound. If you’re one of those hardcore LA theatre aficionados who truly love the kind of unique and intimate live productions one can only find in our fabulous city, it’s definitely time to consider diving back in – and fortunately, the historic Skylight Theatre has something on its stage right now that should be considered a must-see for any LGBTQ+ theatre fan.
Produced by Playwrights Arena and the Skylight Theatre Company, “Lavender Men” is a brand-new “historical fantasia” which re-imagines one of America’s most beloved historical icons, President Abraham Lincoln, through a queer lens. It’s not the first time Lincoln’s alleged non-heterosexual leanings have been the subject of speculation – or even of speculative dramatization – but this is not merely a historical drama attempting to make a case for the Great Emancipator’s queerness. Directed by Lovell Holder, it instead bridges over a century and a half of history by focusing on an outside observer – Taffeta, a queer and plus-sized person of color who invades Abe Lincoln’s private world to confront issues of visibility, race, and LGBTQ+ inclusion that still challenge us today.
Taffeta, like “Lavender Men” itself, is the brainchild of playwright Roger Q. Mason, who (appropriately enough) plays the character in this premiere production. She’s a figure that represents Mason’s own experience of American culture, springing from their own thinking “about the ways in which people of color, plus size, expansive, are often left out of American romances.”
The Blade recently had a chance to chat with Mason about the play, and our conversation is below.
LA Blade: It’s interesting that you chose to address our current vision of the American narrative, particularly regarding queer and non-White European experience, with a play about the Civil War era. Can you explain why you made that choice?
Roger Q. Mason: For me, the Civil War was the time in which our current notions of race, politics, history, and memory were first codified. We are still living in the aftermath of the divides formed during that period. It’s no coincidence that, shortly after the war (in 1868, to be exact), the word “homosexual” first appeared in scientific literature. It is not a coincidence that the backlash of the Emancipation Proclamation (and Juneteenth) was Jim Crow – whose insidious ideas we are unfortunately having to relive in our country today. Therefore, the play HAS to return to the Civil War to disrupt our notions about our cultural and historical narrative and start healing, through calling out the ills that divide rather than unite us.
LAB: Lincoln’s sexuality has long been a point of contentious debate, which is not surprising, considering he is obviously an iconic President – and an iconic Republican, too, although the party of his day was arguably more aligned with values generally attributed Democrats, today. Is that part of the reason you decided to explore it in your play?
RQM: Well, the play was first born from working in the brilliant queer arts community of Chicago. At that time, there was a play going around called “Lincoln was a Faggot,” which pondered the 16th President’s queerness. I was intrigued by the premise. I thought that Lincoln was an American historical god – almost impenetrable and beyond notions of the flesh. So, the possibility of his queerness humanized him in a way. And if I can humanize him, then I can interrogate the world in which he lived and the values which we have inherited from that world. Emerging from a place of humanity, change and growth are possible; healing is possible. Exploring Lincoln’s queerness became, for me, the first step in healing my own Black, plus-sized queer heart now – a heart which oftentimes feels invisible to my white cisgender queer male counterparts.
LAB: Is that how Taffeta came into the picture?
RQM: Taffeta evolved into the center of “Lavender Men” because of a challenge from Skylight Theatre Company. When we were preparing for the Skylab readings, Producing Co-Artistic Director Gary Grossman posed the question, “Why does Taffeta need to be in the play?” In that early draft, she didn’t have the dominant presence she has now, but I knew she needed to be at the center of the work. She was its heartbeat. So, in many ways, Taffeta’s evolution and growth was a reply to Gary’s question.
LAB: How did writing “Lavender Men” contribute to your own “evolution and growth?”
RQM: The development history of “Lavender Men” is the story of my own growth as a person and a writer. Growing up, I wanted to be a “man of letters” – with an emphasis on the masculine respectability and the intellectual prowess of that phrase – but what I am is a gender expansive story conjurer! I’ve learned through the process of this play to embrace those beautiful aspects of who I am.
And I must give credit to Playwrights’ Arena for allowing me the space in which to experience that process. My affiliation with them has been one of admirer and devotee. Jon Lawrence Rivera has championed the works of two very important Los Angeles-based playwrights, Boni Alvarez and Donald Jolly, and they are guiding lights to me as a writer – so when this opportunity to collaborate with Jon and his crew came along, I was excited.
LAB: What points in the play are most significant to you? What do you hope the audience will take away?
RQM: One of my favorite moments in the play was added in previews. It’s right before the last scene, where Taffeta finally admits the conflicted mission of her voyeurism: she is retelling Abe’s story to identify how his queer white male love excludes her as a black, plus-sized person; and she wants to tell it because it is the closest she’ll ever get to romance in her loveless life. As a writer, that kind of dramaturgical clarity is GOLD.
I hope that audiences relish in the specific and universal truths that my castmates Pete Ploszek, Alex Esola and I are mining through the show, including the hurt that bias reaps on “the other,” the power of second chances, and the eternal search for self-love. Working with my creative other half Lovell Holder, director on this project, has deepened these themes through embodiment in production. We have all had a lot of fun making the show! So, ultimately, I hope audiences learn something new about themselves and their history, while having a fabulous time along the way.
“Lavender Men” performs at LA’s Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 North Vermont Ave (in Los Feliz), through Sept 4. For tickets and more information visit the Skylight’s website.
“Hadestown” now at LA’s Ahmanson Theater
It’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, who in Ancient Greece became renowned for making music so beautiful it moved the stones to weep
LOS ANGELES – By the time “Hadestown” won the Tony for Best Musical, it had already been around for more than 13 years. Conceived, created, and composed by singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell in 2006 in what she describes as “a D.I.Y. theater project”, it passed through several iterations (including a concept album and a New York Theatre Workshop production) in a lengthy development process before finally emerging as the Broadway Production that debuted in 2019.
Its story, of course, has been around for much longer. It’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, who in Ancient Greece became renowned for making music so beautiful it moved the stones to weep; when his beloved wife Eurydice was bitten by vipers and died, he descended into the underworld and used his musical gifts to persuade Hades himself to let her return with him to the world of the living – though with a condition attached to make the hero’s triumph less a victory than a Devil’s bargain, as anyone who knows this familiar tale will surely remember.
And it IS a familiar tale, one which spawned an entire religion in the Ancient Mediterranean world and has gone on to inspire countless artists – for reasons which are perhaps obvious, it’s a story with particular significance to artists, of all kinds – to express it through works of their own over all the centuries since. Why, then, does it need to be told again?
“Hadestown,” now arrived at LA’s Ahmanson Theater, endeavors to answer that question – but it also stands, in all its infectious and transfigurative excellence, as answer enough in itself.
Reimagining the story from its classical origins into something more resembling a rustic American folk tale, Mitchell’s musical transplants it into a New Orleans-esque setting somewhere on the Road to Hell, where Hermes may still be messenger of the gods, but is here a master-of-ceremonies, too.
It’s a place where the times are definitely hard, but Hermes’ ward Orpheus claims to be writing a song to set the world right again. Eurydice is a hungry drifter who falls for the youthful bard even though he’s clearly a simple-minded dreamer with nothing to offer her but his love; the Underworld is a factory, where workers labor eternally under the promise of freedom which never comes, and Hades is its powerful owner; his wife Persephone (per agreement) lives half the year with him down below and counts the hours until she’s free to live the other half having fun and spreading sunshine in the world above.
With the principal characters recast in this way, the show is free to weave their tale through a rich and imaginative blues-and-jazz infused musical score and the simple-but-ingenious theatrical trickery of its scenic design – and the result is two-and-a-half hours of high-spirited, irresistible enjoyment that’s guaranteed to deliver a deeply satisfying emotional catharsis but never once feels like just another version of a stodgy old myth.
There is not much a review can convey about the experience of “Hadestown” that comes close to capturing it. The best one can do is say you will certainly laugh, probably cry, and unquestionably be humming the songs for weeks to come. Beyond that, we can only encourage our readers – enthusiastically –to go and see it, and assure them it will be a rollicking, rousing good time. It is, and we do.
That said, there are a lot of things about it to appreciate – the sense of magic that pervades the entire show, for instance, bringing us into a realm where reality and metaphor blend, and the literal and the poetic become one and the same.
In this “world of gods and men”, summer can be both a season of the year and a feeling of being in love, Hell can be a dead-end job or a troubled marriage, and a wealthy industrialist with Fascist leanings can be the Devil himself. Reading those statements alone is enough to recognize the truth of them; living them through “Hadestown” is enough to stamp that truth indelibly into your memory.
A great deal of the magic that makes that happen comes from the show’s score, performed with relish by an onstage show band that is as much of a character as any of the other people on stage. It disarms us with its feel-good sound, a classic blend of elements from gospel to Dixieland to zydeco, and artfully deploys harmonics and melody with scientific precision to transport us into the esoteric mindset where all myths take place.
In other words, the power of “Hadestown” comes from its music – which, perhaps not coincidentally, is about as true to the spirit of Orpheus himself as you can get.
That spirit clearly inhabits the show’s cast, as well. Tony-winner (for “Million Dollar Quartet”) Levi Kreis steps into the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the regal Andre De Shields – Broadway’s Hermes – and makes the role his own, bringing a crooner’s voice and a “good-time Charlie” flair that lend a poignant edge to the hard-won wisdom it is his assignation to dispense.
As Orpheus, youthful Nicholas Barasch endears himself with a comedic red-headed “mooncalf” persona, while contrasting it with a voice that sounds as if it really was a gift from the gods; Morgan Siobhan Green’s Eurydice is a perfect yin to his yang, as grounded in practical reality as he is adrift in the clouds of his imagination and his art, but with a soulful voice of her own.
Keyvn Morrow brings imposing presence, a powerful deep bass voice, and just enough empathy to Hades, while Kimberly Marable’s Persephone, equally compelling as sun-drenched summer goddess and day-drinking neglected wife, is the natural center of attention whenever she appears onstage.
Capping the main ensemble off are Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne as The Fates, who taunt the characters – and the audience – throughout with tight harmonies and choreography that practically stop the show every time they take the spotlight. And as praiseworthy as all the leading players are, their talents are matched by the entire ensemble.
Add an ever-metamorphosizing scenic design by Rachel Hauck and electrifying choreography by David Neumann, and “Hadestown” becomes an unforgettable trip to the Underworld and back that will leave you wanting more for a long time to come. And if all that is not enough to convince you that it’s the biggest must-see musical of the year so far, then just remember what we said about words not being able to capture the experience – and go to see it anyway.
“Hadestown” continues through May 29 at the Ahmanson, but if you can’t make it by then you can catch the same production when it takes the stage at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from August 9 to 21.
Barrier-breaking lesbian does a ‘Death-Defying Escape’ in her new play
Carter was the first woman to ever play the Close-Up Gallery at the Magic Castle, LA’s famed club frequented by celebrity magic lovers
HOLLYWOOD – Quick, name a famous female magician. Don’t worry, we already know you probably can’t – not even if you use Google. That’s because, as Judy Carter puts it, “There aren’t any. They’re all men. The idea that a woman can manipulate reality is really terrifying – I mean, we used to get burned at the stake for it, right?”
Judy herself, however, is proof that her statement is not entirely true. Though hardly a household name (not in most households, anyway), she broke gender barriers by performing magic on TV on the likes of “The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Mike Douglas Show,” before an impromptu performance necessitated by missing equipment launched her into a second career as a stand-up comedian, public speaker, and author (“I wrote the BOOK on being gay!”, she jokes, in reference to her Lambda Literary Award-winning humor book, “The Homo Handbook”). She’s since appeared on over 100 TV shows and four comedy cable specials, as well as opening for Prince and playing in Las Vegas.
Now she’s playing the Hudson Guild Theatre in Hollywood, with her play “A Death-Defying Escape.” Presented by Comedy Workshop Productions, it’s described as “a darkly funny, inspiring new comedy about one woman’s miraculous escape from the secrets of her past.” In it, Carter weaves together stories from her life with “jaw-dropping, audience-interactive on-stage magic”, and takes audiences through a unique narrative that features something for everyone: Jewish humor, lesbian romance, a disability awareness — and world-class, never-before-seen illusions designed by Vegas pro Craig Dickens.
“He did it because he loved the script so much,” Carter tells us.
Speaking with the Blade during a break from the rigors of last-minute rehearsals, the verteran performer shared some of the experiences – not all of them wonderful – that culminated in her decision to tell her life story in a play, starting with a not-so-obvious explanation about the connection she feels between magic and being a lesbian.
“I think there’s a big correlation between us gays and magicians,” she told us. “Especially those of us who came out in the eighties – and that’s keeping secrets.
This play is about revealing secrets. We had so of them many growing up in the Fairfax district of LA – we weren’t the fancy Beverly Hills Jews, you know, we were the low-end Jews who still had our original noses. My older sister was disabled, and she was given away to an institution, that was a secret. And then I turned out to be gay, and that was a secret. And then guess what? Grandma’s having electro-shock treatment, and that was another secret!”
During those early years, Carter found refuge and release in comedy, overcoming a speech impediment so she could do funny magic shows for birthday parties. She even ended up being written up for it in the Los Angeles Times, launching her on a career that would ultimately take her across barriers no woman had passed before – though it wasn’t always an easy passage.
“I was the first woman to ever play the Close-Up Gallery, in the card room at the Magic Castle,” she remembers, meaning Los Angeles’ famed private club frequented by celebrity magic lovers ranging from Orson Welles to Neil Patrick Harris since its founding in 1963.
“Anyway, what happened was, I was physically picked up by this real ‘macho’ magician, and he threw me over his shoulder, and carried me out of the Castle, and he threw me down into the parking lot. And he said to me, ‘Women don’t belong here, honey, stick to bunnies and rabbits, cards are for men.’ And I thought, ‘Why? Because they’re so heavy?’
And so, in my play, I have that scene, and I think it will open up some things… I think it will really resonate.”
Still, her show is not just dedicated to the professional hurdles that she had to leap.
“I wrote this play because it also surrounds something that happened to me later in life, and that is that I fell deeply in love,” she explains. “It was almost like the first time. I was married to another woman for sixteen years, and we got divorced, and even though I had given up on finding love – I mean, I know getting older is not big turn on for a lot of people – suddenly I was falling in love with a woman that was considerably younger than me. Forty years younger! And it blew my mind.”
While the new love in her life might not seem related to the stories of her earlier trials, it’s more than just a convenient “happy ending” – there’s a point to be made.
“No matter what trauma has happened to us in our past, love is possible,” Carter says. “Escape is possible. It’s possible to leave behind these things that have happened to us and make ourselves vulnerable to love.”
As for the magic, she won’t reveal too much.
“I can’t give any spoilers, but I will tell you that I do a death-defying escape from heterosexuality, right in front of people’s eyes! It’s going to be amazing!”
Directed by Lee Costello, “A Death-Defying Escape!” features Carter alongside actors Kevin Scott Allen and Lyndsi LaRose, and will “disappear weekly” at the Hudson Guild Theatre Saturdays and Sundays from April 2 through May 8. In addition, the production will be made available to streaming audiences worldwide beginning on April 9 – so even if you’re reading this from outside of Los Angeles, you’ll still get a chance to experience it.
Tickets to both are available via www.deathdefyingescape.com.
Near-naked Ambition: ‘The Comics Strip’ is getting more exposure
Much of the material performed by both women draws from observations about what makes lesbian culture sex & sexuality idiosyncratic
NORTH HOLLYWOOD – Nervous people who find themselves on stage fumbling at a podium or clutching a microphone for dear life are often told to picture their audience without any clothes on—the idea being that if the crowd looks as vulnerable as the person on stage feels, the prosect of getting laughs or applause won’t see so daunting.
But wait: Not so fast, says veteran stand-up comedian Michael Grant, whose role reversal take on the old “picture them naked” advice is the cornerstone of what Grant believes could be the next big thing in elimination-based, reality entertainment.
“The Comics Strip” is a live stand-up show where the audience remains fully dressed, and gets to decide which comedian just told the better joke. The winner basks in the glow of their approval, while the loser must shed a piece of clothing.
This friendly competition continues until one of the performers is standing nearly naked in front of a room full of people who share an unbroken bond with their shoes, socks, shirts, skirts, and pants.
“This is the first show of its kind,” notes the likably enthusiastic Grant, who wouldn’t ask his hand-picked cast of comedic performers to do anything he wasn’t willing to do first. In fact, Grant is the founding father of Strip-Down Comedy, having improvised the concept in 1997. As an early career stand-up comedian who often found himself preceding or following a fellow up-and-comer, Grant recalls his stand-up experience back in the day was largely about “always trying to beat Gabriel Iglesias.”
One night, Grant found himself on stage, having taken off his jacket and tie “just to get comfortable.” But then he continued disrobing, and it got laughs. Soon enough, he recalls, “when the shirt came off, it was like static electricity. They [the audience] went wild… and if I didn’t get a laugh, I’d put a piece of clothing back on.”
Eventually, recalled Grant, “I dropped the gimmick and became a better writer—and now, I’m bringing that concept back,” says the man with skin in the game, who’s betting that comedy club audiences will be eager to embrace something different, after spending the last two-plus years locked in lockdown routine.
Early indications seem to bare him out, so to speak: A sample reel of “The Comics Strip” concept playing out in front of a raucous live audience garnered two million hits on Tik Tok “in like, nine days,” says Garner, who notes you won’t find it on that platform anymore. “They didn’t wanna pay,” he says, “so now we’re banned.”
Clips from the show are still to be found on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube shorts, however, in addition to a website where new content is being added all the time—and this Monday, March 21at 8pm (at the Comedy Chateau, North Hollywood), the concept gets a fully realized stage show presentation.
That show, and a handful of others in the coming months, will be taped. From that material, a pilot will be created and shopped around as a network, syndicated, or streaming series. Franchising the concept to comedy clubs is also a possibility, as are custom-made versions of the joke-telling/voting/stripping concept such as, say, a Pride Month edition with contestants from the LGBTQAI+ community.
With June just around the bend, a lavender-leaning special edition of “The Comics Strip” seems like a no-brainer (well at least a no-blazer). The diverse cast of distinct voices Grant is still in the process of assembling already has its share of rainbow shading—and confirmed talent for the March 21 gig includes the competitive pairing of Kira Johnson and Kammie Burns.
Both women are relative newcomers to stand-up comedy—and, for that matter, the cohabitation (three months and counting) that came about as part of their recently formed romantic relationship.
Much of the material to be performed by both women draws from observations about what makes lesbian culture, community, sex, and sexuality both universal and “inside baseball” idiosychratic. Exactly who will walk away from the stage with more clothes on that the other person cannot be predicted—but both Kira and Kammie see their pairing as yielding two positive outcomes, guaranteed.
Noted Kammie of their mutually accelerated joke-writing process lately, “Our approach is, ‘This is my girlfriend I’m competing against, head to head, so I’d better get to work’ [and make both of us look good].”
“We’re both competitive,” says Kammy, “so this show gives us double the chances of winning. We are very excited to really challenge each other, to push each other to the next level.”
Kira says she feels “very competitive, and I’m pretty excited to win… I don’t think it will have any negative effect on our relationship.” (Although if one of them shows up wearing the other’s undergarment, the one that “went missing” at the laundromat a few weeks ago, all bets are off—the live-in gays know what I’m talking about.)
As for the selling point of the show itself, Grant puts forth a line of reasoning sure to appeal to the spendthrift and live entertainment consumer alike: “If you like nudity—and you like comedy,” he says, “then why are you spending money at two places?”
“The Comics Strip” is performed at 8pm on Monday, March 21, at the Comedy Chateau (4615 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA 91602).
For tickets ($20 general admission), visit https://app.showslinger.com/ticket_payment/3858/checkout_ticket.
‘NEA Four’ performance artist Fleck still pushing buttons in latest show
John Fleck was one of the performance artists who in 1990 had their grants rescinded under pressure from conservative U.S. Senators
WEST LOS ANGELES – “I like to remind myself, ‘At least I’ll always be a footnote in the Art History books!’” That’s what John Fleck has to say about his role as one of the “NEA Four,” a quartet of performance artists who in 1990 had their grants rescinded by the National Endowment of the Arts under pressure from Washington – in particular, Senators Alphonse D’Amato and Jesse Helms, who led a coalition of fellow conservative senators to impose guidelines restricting the organization from supporting whose work “may be considered obscene.”
When the Blade sat down with the veteran LA performance artist to have a conversation about his latest show – a new cabaret extravaganza called “it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!,” which opens February 19 at the Odyssey Theatre – we knew we had to ask him about the incident that made him notorious. What, exactly, did he do that was so obscene the government felt it had to intervene?
“It was a show called ‘Blessed Are All the Little Fishes,’ back in 1988. I had this toilet that I found on the street, and I put it on wheels and rolled it onto the stage – I was dressed as a mermaid – and I created this whole religious epiphany thing where I vomited into the toilet, and I was saying ‘God, why did you stop loving me?’
“Then God answered from the toilet, ‘I never stopped loving you, you stopped loving me!,’ and it became this ‘miracle of the toilet bowl.’ A Bible appeared, and then – being a punk, you know these were the old punk rock days – I whipped out my penis and peed in the toilet, and I’m reading this biblical passage and experiencing this miracle, and then I reached down into the toilet, I had these little bowls down in there, and I brought out a goldfish. And I was like, ‘God answered my prayer with a stupid goldfish?’ Anyway, I learned the meaning of love through this little goldfish, and that was the germ of the piece,” Fleck recalled.
Over thirty years later, many of our readers might think that sounds like just another Saturday night – as many did back then, as well. Nevertheless, it caused a stir. After starting out as a club performance (with the now-defunct troupe Theatre Carnivale at the long-gone Olio, in Silver Lake), it eventually moved to the now-torn-down Tiffany Theatre; somewhere along the way, Fleck says, a friend suggested applying for an NEA grant, and he did it. To his surprise, he was awarded $5000.
Flashing forward to 1990, he tells us, “I remember coming home from doing a show at the Chris Brownlie AIDS hospice in 1990, and on my message machine there were something like 40 phone calls from CNN and so on, saying ‘What are your thoughts about your grant being taken away?” That was how I found out. And I was, like, ‘Whoa, Senator Jesse Helms, you really do NOT like my work!’ And then, you know, one thing led to another and we ended up going to the Supreme Court – and here I am a hundred years later.”
The four artists (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, and Holly Hughes were the other three) won that Supreme Court Case in 1993, scoring a victory for Free Speech, but the NEA – again, under pressure – subsequently discontinued awarding funds to individual artists.
Fleck says the whole episode gave him an exaggerated reputation that dogged him for years.
“I remember talking to Holly Hughes and saying how we couldn’t create anything because all we were doing was defending ourselves. I’d read things like ‘John Fleck masturbates in front of an audience!’ or that Helms was saying I urinated on the picture of Jesus Christ, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I never did that.’ But suddenly I was labeled. Beware of labels, they really stick. I spent a lot of time trying to peel mine off and define who I really was.”
Looking back now, he sees a clear connection between the repressively prurient atmosphere of those years and the resurgence of extreme conservatism today – something that’s particularly obvious in the extremist fervor of the MAGA crowd.
“OF COURSE we all want to make America great, I don’t know about ‘again’, but there IS that mythology. We were founded on great principles, let’s make it great as a democracy. But y’all remember how great it was during the late ‘80s and ‘90s, with Reagan in office who never once mentioned AIDS? And here we are in another fucking contagion, but sure, let’s go backwards and pretend that shit never happened.
“But really, for the extreme right-wing, what they mean is that some people are great and some are not great.”
Conveniently, the topic allows Fleck a deft segue to talk about his upcoming piece.
“In ‘IT’S ALIVE!’ I play three characters, and one of them is this extreme right wing guy, and it’s fun getting to spew all this misogynistic, homophobic stuff – it always gets a big laugh in the audience, because it’s such a pressure releaser, these things we’re not supposed to say. And then I also play this mythical Covid germ, who’s basically on the far left, in a way, and he’s ‘an emissary of love,’ saying the virus isn’t here to kill humanity, its mission is to save the world. And on top of all that – you know, gosh darn it, I’m a gay performance artist and there’s definitely a queer sensibility to the whole thing.”
In other words, his new show might not be “obscene”, but it’s sure to ruffle some feathers.
“I love to push those buttons,” Fleck enthuses. “To make an audience uncomfortable, make them look at reality. We have to get grounded again. We’re all lost in our own realities, there’s like the MSNBC reality and there’s people like my family in Cleveland who are… whoo! Man, they believe in some crazy shit!
“But really, I’m just trying to get us all away from being so entrenched, to get to the roots of our humanity, to remind everybody – and yes, I know it sounds simplistic – that it’s all about loving each other.”
Still, he’s quick to assure us the show is meant – mostly, at least – simply to be to be a “rollicking good time”, using musical numbers, dance sequences and broad characters in “a hilarious and uniquely ribald theatrical rollercoaster” skewering our fears and assumptions about everything from COVID-19 to our identity as earth dwellers at this precarious moment.
“I wanted to get back to my performance roots, to doing cabaret, and perform with a band, so we have a two-piece band and some singer-dancer-actors who are helping me out. It’s been incubating for like a year-and-a-half. I always think of it as this baby, and it poked its head out in September when we did the workshop, and we got a great response, and now Baby wants to be born!”
That baby, written and performed by Fleck and directed by his longtime collaborator David Schweizer, will appear onstage at the Odyssey February 19 thru March 20, with tickets and information available at 310) 477-2055 or OdysseyTheatre.com.
‘Jamie’ comes to America in triumphant Ahmanson premiere
A time when being gay is okay, where drag is fun for everybody, and there’s room for everybody but the bigots at the party
LOS ANGELES – The tag line for “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” the London West End musical making its North American debut at the Ahmanson this month, tells us that it is “the hit musical for today.”
That is an entirely accurate statement.
With a book and lyrics by Tom MacRae and music by Dan Gillespie Sells, it’s a show that was inspired by the real-life story of a 16-year-old British schoolboy who bucked bigotry and overcame bullying to become a drag queen – or more precisely, it was inspired by the 2011 documentary “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16,” which told his story.
Premiering in 2017, the musical opened in the Yorkshire town of Sheffield, where it is set, before moving to the West End for a successful run that earned the show several nominations at the Olivier Awards. A Broadway production was planned, but tabled (thanks to Covid), and a film adaptation was made which, after several delays (again, thanks to Covid), was released by Amazon in 2021.
Now, in lieu of Broadway, it’s receiving its first incarnation on the American stage in Los Angeles – which seems entirely appropriate, somehow, given the show’s young-and-hip appeal. Renamed as Jamie New, its proudly gay protagonist is already very much out to his family and to fellow students at his Sheffield school, but has kept hidden his secret dream to become a drag queen.
Encouraged by his friend Pritti, and with the blessing of his concerned-but-supportive mother Margaret, he resolves to emerge from a second closet by attending the prom in drag. He finds an unexpected mentor in Hugo, the owner of a shop for drag attire (himself a former drag legend named Loco Chanelle), and as his confidence grows, so does his boldness; but as word begins to spread of his planned “coming out” he faces resistance, bullying, and worse from the community around him – including a homophobic schoolmate, a conservative teacher, and the estranged father whose long-withheld acceptance is something for which he keenly longs.
Can he overcome these repressive obstacles to claim his true identity as a fabulous queen and perform for his adoring fans? If you have any experience at all with musical theatre, chances are that you already know the answer is [SPOILER ALERT] yes.
From its first few minutes, the show lets you know without a doubt that it plans not just to entertain, but to dazzle. Loaded with infectious, pop-flavored songs and providing ample opportunity for a young and limber cast of triple-threat performers to wow us with their physical prowess and their talent, it leans hard into the optimism that drives most of its characters – the select few who embrace a more cynical worldview are, not coincidentally, largely antagonists – and makes sure to keep the tone from becoming too dark for too long, even when the story gives us glimpses of a harsher side of life as a drag queen.
It seamlessly blends diverse elements of stagecraft into its visual design, taking place on a streamlined, mod, efficiently configurable set that captures both the flashy electronic milieu of the Instagram era inhabited by its youthful hero and the rough-around-the-edges vibe of the working class neighborhood in which he actually lives. And if all of that isn’t enough, it has drag.
It’s not necessarily about drag, however. In fact, while drag is very much the passion that Jamie follows on his personal journey, it’s not the destination. Nor is his story really about acceptance, either from himself, his oppressors at school, or his absent and small-minded father; it’s clear from the beginning that he’s already pretty sure of himself, and there’s never any real doubt that things are going to turn out just fine for him, in the end.
The transformation Jamie is required to make involves not so much how he sees himself, in fact, but how he sees the people around him. It’s a refreshing shift, in many ways, from the frequent drag narrative in which the end goal is self-acceptance, in that it goes on to show how self-acceptance can also lead to greater acceptance not just from others, but for others, as well.
In that spirit, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” treats all its characters with empathy, even the school bully – though it pointedly turns a cold shoulder to Jamie’s dad, whose unrelenting homophobia seemingly makes his character undeserving of even being given a name. Still, even a show with as positive an attitude as this one needs a reminder that there are still those among us who haven’t been won over – at least, not yet – and in the end it’s unequivocally easy to stand in enthusiastic solidarity as the whole happy cast comes out to take their bows.
As to that cast, Layton Williams (reprising his role as Jamie from both the UK tour and remounted West End production of the show) is every bit worthy of our full attention and adulation as he struts his stuff (and his impossibly long legs, even in expert-level heels) as Jamie.
Melissa Jacques is warm, grounded, and compelling as his mother, and she makes her second act song soliloquy, “He’s My Boy,” into a showstopper. Hiba Elchikhe embodies the spirit of girl power as Pritti, whose embrace of her Muslim identity doesn’t stop her from giving Jamie a run for his money in making a splash, and Gillian Ford makes her role as stodgy Careers teacher Miss Hodge into an audience favorite.
Shobna Gulati brings a tough-as-nails protective presence as Mom’s loyal friend Ray, and George Sampson makes sure school bully Dean is awkward and endearing enough for us to cheer for his redemption. Finally, Roy Haylock – who is better known as Bianca Del Rio and brings a level of serious queer star power to the production – proves himself to be as much of an energetic, gifted comedic performer when he’s out of drag as he is when he is in it. That doesn’t mean, however, that Bianca doesn’t make an appearance herself, when Hugo [another probably unnecessary SPOILER ALERT] brings Loco Chenelle out of retirement to cheer Jamie on.
With a uniformly talented cast, brisk direction from Jonathan Butterell, and high-energy choreography by Kate Prince, this production of “Jamie” is well-worthy of being the show’s North American debut.
It entertains, with seeming effortlessness despite the whirlwind energy on which it rides, and it reinforces our best hopes and beliefs about ourselves and the world we live in along the way. If its conflicts resolve a little too easily, and its obstacles melt a little too conveniently, we can forgive that as a tip of the hat to artistic license and theatrical convention. It’s may be as ephemeral as a photo on Instagram, unapologetically designed to be feel-good fluff – but if there was ever a time when the world needed feel-good fluff, this is it.
It is, after all, a “hit musical for today,” intended to capture and celebrate the cultural moment of the here and now – a time when being gay is okay, drag is fun for everyone, and there’s room at the party for everybody but the bigots.
And they can come too, if they’re willing to stop being bullies and start being friends instead.
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