Archive Feature: 2007 Broadway Beauty Pageant

From May 2007:

The winner of the first annual Mr. Broadway pageant held last Monday, April 30th, Mr. “Mamma Mia” Frankie James Grande, is living proof that saying “she ain’t right” doesn’t preclude sexiness – crazy can be crazy hot! Grande went way out on a limb with his “talent” performance, singing “You’re the One that I Want” as Gollum from “Lord of the Rings.”

He went even further, mixing in the idea that Gollum was a contestant on the recent “Grease” casting show bearing that song’s name. It certainly didn’t hurt that ultra-athletic back flips were part of his act, or that he sang in a loincloth, or that his swimsuit was the skimpiest of the lot (combined with body oil, which host Tovah Feldshuh praised as “attention to detail”).

Judge Seth Rudetsky (a Broadway musician also known for his one-man show “Rhapsody in Seth”, and “Broadway Chatterbox” his weekly live talk show at Don’t Tell Mama) revealed that “Nancy Opel and I did a show together on Saturday and we looked at each other and said ‘This pageant on Monday could really be awful.’ We’ll do it for the terrific organization it benefits –the Ali Forney Center (AFC) which provides shelter for homeless LGBT youth in New York City – but we were both sort of dreading it.”

“But,” Rudetsky enthuses, “it was so well done! Amazing, so well produced, the talent level was incredible, I thought. Tovah Feldshuh, the host, was hilarious, doing her Borscht Belt shtick, which the audience just ate up. I totally want to do it again! I mean I’d love to be in it but I’d have to do a 40 pound weight loss and drop 20 years in age. I was so impressed with the acts, they could have just come out and sang their audition songs, but they were so well thought out and brave.”

Each of the contestants went head to head in talent, interview and swimsuit competitions in front of judges who are celebrities on the Great White Way – or nearby gay bars — but ultimately, the final vote was left in the audience’s hands. The judges were Scott Nevins, Opel and Rudetsky.

Grande wasn’t the only candidate to rely on comedy: Mr. “Mary Poppins” Kevin Yee gave an interpretation of Tom Jones’s “Sex Bomb” that playfully parodied boy-band choreography and costuming (Yee was part of boy-band Youth Asylum when he was a teenager).

Mr. “Curtains” Ward Billeisen earned points for dressing elegantly for his talent, but lost points for singing the melodically easy “Moondance.” His swimsuit featured “curtains” that rose to reveal his bare butt, which the judges found provocative for its combination of cleverness and sexiness.

Mr. “Wicked” Kenway Kua’s talent was a dance that also involved a serious story about finding self-esteem and some artful choreography. Full disclosure: Kua got my vote because the choreography was his own, and incorporated technically difficult moves and good storytelling – and, yes, a gradual shedding of costume revealing his svelte physique.

Mr. “A Chorus Line” Paul McGill both hacked off and challenged the judges with an early revelation that he was only 19, born in 1987. He also caused a stir in the swimsuit competition with a package that was either quite well-hung or artfully-stuffed. “It was crazy,” said Rudetsky. “Did he wrap his dick four times over? I don’t understand how it can look like that.” In the interview section he did a very hard to-the-ground split. Maybe that’s why he was first runner up to Grande — though it might also be because he very nearly nailed the Michael Bennett‘s choreography for “Music and the Mirror,” a bravura dance number from “Line” in heels no less, which he chose for his talent.

Mr. “Hairspray,” Arbinder Robinson is clearly a singer before everything else, staking everything on his interpretation of “Georgia on My Mind” which he delivered with chops that more closely resembled real soul than “American Idol” screaming. He copped out on the swimsuit portion of the evening, but was candid and winning in the interview, speaking about his upbringing and theatrical career.

Mr. “Tarzan” Nick Sanchez got major technical points for attempting to set a world record for toe touches (high jumps with hands extended to meet the feet) – he made it to 50. He charmed the judges, especially Nevins, in the interview, and caused a stir by swallowing an entire bottle of Corona during his swimsuit walk.

On the subject of the Center’s financial need AFC Executive Director Carl Siciliano comments that “We want only the best for the kids in our program. The services they can get from the government are minimal. It’s like getting a baloney sandwich when they need and deserve a four-course meal. At the Ali Forney Center, we want to make sure they get the four-course meal.”

Ali Forney was a homeless queer teen who was forced to live on the streets of New York during the 1990s. Ali was dedicated to the safety of other homeless queer youth; he was a committed HIV prevention worker, and aggressively advocated that the NYPD investigate a series of murders of the homeless queer youth he had befriended. In December of 1997, Ali was murdered on the streets. His tragic death called attention to the atrocious conditions for homeless queer youth in New York. Ali’s murderer has never been identified. According to AFC statistics, as LGBT teens come out of the closet, 25% are rejected by their families, 11.5% of gay and lesbian youth report being physically attacked by family members and 42% of homeless youth self-identify as gay or lesbian.

AFC was started in June 2002 in response to the lack of safe shelter for LGBT youth in New York City. They are committed to providing LGBT youth with safe, dignified, nurturing environments where their needs can be met and where they can begin to put their lives back together. AFC has quickly become the nation’s largest and most comprehensive organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth. AFC currently provides help for 2,000 persons a year with services including three emergency housing sites, three transitional housing sites, a network of resources in New York City, and a day center that offers clinical and support services.

While the total amount raised had not been tallied at press time, the audience was given the opportunity after the show to make an additional donation to the Ali Forney Center, resulting in over $2000 in cash raised at the door alone.

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Archive Review: Frost/Nixon

From May 2007:

Peter Morgan is best known as the screenwriter of the award-winning films The Last King of Scotland and The Queen. In Frost/Nixon, his first play, Morgan continues his great success in transforming critical moments in late 20th century history into gripping drama.

The play is not, as some have suggested, a mere staging of the highlights of David Frost’s famous 1977 interview with disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon. Over three-quarters of the show are concerned with the context of that history making interview. Frank Langella’s oddly charismatic version of Nixon artfully portrays the tense enigma of this most perplexing American politician. The real heart of Frost/Nixon, however, is Frost’s struggle to be taken seriously as a journalist, as the man who took Nixon down.

As Frost, Michael Sheen presents the slyly reserved surface of this icon, all the while investing every moment with barely concealed ambition. Frost/Nixon is a really engaging piece of historical drama, which has the most to teach people unfamiliar with the incredibly high stakes of the Watergate scandal.

Review: Swan Lake

I have two conflicting reactions to Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. First, the more positive one: This is tremendously exciting, inspired and inspirational dance-making. Bourne juggles vastly divergent movement vocabularies with breathtaking ease and dazzling panache. Seeing Bourne’s work in Mary Poppins I knew that his vision was the best one I’ve ever seen for the future of musical theatre choreography: big, brash, original and energetic, with a strong, seductive undercurrent of mystery and mysticism.

Swan Lake has all of those qualities in spades. In his version of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, a repressed Prince falls in love with a male swan. In his extensive dances with the swan and his flock, there are strong hints that the prince undergoes a mystical transformation, with an enormous moon looming large in the background. These svelte bare-chested swans dance with a raw, almost pagan power. If nothing else, this sequence metaphorically captures how deeply powerful coming to terms with your sexuality can be. The scenes that take place at court are also ravishing in their own way, with Lez Brotherston’s flashy, glamorous sets and costumes beautifully matching Bourne’s athletic yet elegant dances.

So I do think Bourne is a singular genius, and his Swan Lake is indeed the modern classic everyone makes it out to be. But that doesn’t mean I think its perfect. While looking firmly ahead in the way he choreographs, Bourne doesn’t edit like a 21st century storyteller. The extended dances with the swans feature the most riveting dancing in the entire show, but they go on too long and eventually become a bit redundant, which undercuts their power. I understand the impulse to use every note Tchaikovsky wrote, but I don’t think it’s the right impulse.

Also, given that Bourne has taken enormous liberties with the ballet’s original story, I’m a bit confused about why he chooses to end it so conventionally. Why, inherently, does this have to be a tragedy? The lead swan faces a rebellion from the other swans at the end that made no sense to me whatsoever. In a sense this version ends even more pessimistically than the original. Yes, in the original the Prince and the Swan Princess Odette drown themselves, but in the process they take down the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. Nothing so cathartic happens here, we just see the swan and the prince happy in heaven. That’s it? Really?

My objections aren’t minor, but Bourne is such a freaking genius that I don’t think they subtract that much from the work’s overall appeal. Call it a flawed must-see.

For tickets, click here.

Archive Review: Inherit the Wind

From April 2007:

Inherit the Wind is the most theatrically satisfying play revival of this season. The 1955 play is a highly fictionalized gloss on the 1925 “Monkey Trial,” in which John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. Scopes broke a Tennessee law that barred teaching “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

Director Doug Hughes makes this (and much else) crystal clear, doing the best work of his career in a production that brims over with vivid textures and personalities. Brian Dennehy intensely underplays the role of prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan, a turn of the 20th century presidential candidate), and Christopher Plummer conjures many colors for agnostic defense attorney Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow).

 While the play focuses on the contest between faith and reason, at its heart it’s a rueful tribute to Bryan, portraying his tragic journey from heroic politician to oblivious ultra-conservative joke. He is the character that “inherits the wind,” dying after winning the trial’s battle but losing the war against Darwinism. While this play doesn’t catch the complexities of Bryan’s inevitably self-contradictory politics, it successfully captures the tragedy of an egotistical idealist who outlives his time. That’s a message to you, Rudy.

Archive Review: West Moon Street

From April 2007:

Director turned playwright Rob Urbinati has done a truly marvelous thing: He’s turned an infrequently read Oscar Wilde short story into a play that actually improves on Wilde’s original. “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” the basis for Urbinati’s “West Moon Street,” tells the tale of young Lord Arthur (David Ruffin), who’s on cloud nine – he’s just down from Oxford and engaged to be married to the appropriately aristocratic Sybil (Melissa Miller). His naïve happiness is smashed to smithereens by a night spent at the residence of his confidante Lady Windermere (Judith Hawking), at which a mysterious palm-reader foretells a deadly turn of events. 

Wilde’s original is filled with wit and subtly subversive humor. Urbinati’s adaptation takes Wilde’s lead and runs with it, making clear things that would have been taboo in Oscar’s day and subtly suggesting things that are still subversive today. For example, Urbinati transforms Herr Winkelkropf (the sharp, intelligent Michael Crane) – merely a German “revolutionary” with “Russian” leanings in the original – into a frankly acknowledged anarchist, and gives him lines that underline political and social points only hinted at in Wilde’s story.

Even more, Urbinati turns the originally mild role of Lady Windermere into a cunningly manipulative force of nature (like her namesake in Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan”), and Hawking turns the role into an unquestionable “lead” performance, replete with quotable lines and juicy motivation. Glenn Peters gets the “Lady Bracknell” award for giving the evening’s only drag role (the stiff-necked but hedonistic Lady Clem) a truly believable interpretation.

This production also benefits from the designs of Lee Savage (set) and Naomi Wolff (costumes). Savage sets the tale’s visuals against an aquatic blue background, which achieves the right balance between light comedy and the murderousness of Lord Arthur’s “dark quest.” Wolff’s costumes also tell their own story: Many of the show’s biggest laughs arrive through the overstated outfits of silly clotheshorse Jane (Jocelyn Greene).

In the central role of Lord Arthur, Ruffin unfortunately takes his time to get the role right, mumbling many of his lines until it’s time for Arthur to take center stage. Once he’s on a roll, though, Ruffin clearly expresses Arthur’s dilemma, which is only exacerbated by the fact that Lord Savile is a certifiable idiot. “West Moon Street” is a Wilde ride indeed!

Archive Review: And He Made A Her

From April 2007:

In the beginning, there was the Caffe Cino. This legendary place was the birthplace of both Off-Off-Broadway and American gay theater. The key playwright in both events was Doric Wilson (now the general director & founder of TOSOS II, the city’s most vibrant gay theatre troupe).

His very first play to be produced, AND HE MADE A HER opened to great acclaim at the Cino (named for proprietor Joe Cino) in 1961, where it, in the words of playwright Robert Patrick, “helped establish the Cino as a venue for new plays, and materially contributed to the then-emerging concept of Off-Off Broadway.”

AND HE MADE A HER is receiving its first New York Revival in over 40 years, in a very entertaining TOSOS II production briskly directed by the company’s artistic director Mark Finley. It is an “Adam and Eve” play, taking a highly satirical view of humanity’s first couple.

Many, many plays and musicals have been written about this duo, most of them beyond dreadful. AND HE MADE A HER is easily the best play on the subject I’ve ever seen, largely because of the subtle feminism of Wilson’s Eve (deftly underplayed by Jamie Heinlein), and the gay sensibility of two oh so fey angels. My husband astutely remarked that it’s vastly better than the first act of the recently revived APPLE TREE, also a dramatization of the first few chapters of Genesis.

That said, AND HE MADE A HER is clearly the work of a very young playwright—not as probing or funny as, say, Wilson’s excellent Stonewall drama STREET THEATER—but an intelligent young playwright with abundant wit and a distinctive point of view on subjects ranging from philosophy to warmongering. It’s also very much of its time, featuring “an angel of conservative cant” named Disenchantralista (Roberto Cambeiro, hitting just the right note of gimlet-eyed resentment) who could have easily walked out of one of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpieces.

Doric has commented that this is one of his least gay plays (it is mostly about the original heteros, after all). What gayness it possesses comes mostly from the two fey angels mentioned above: Disenchantralista’s opposite number Urhelancia (Nick Matthews), “an angel of liberal enthusiasm” and Silvadorf (Chris Weikel). Matthews gives Urhelancia the feel of playfully excitable queer activist, while Weikel’s Silvadorf is the very soul of mid-century gay New York supper club sophistication.

Matt Rashid has the most difficult job, playing “straight man” Adam in the midst of this swirling vortex of eccentric spirits—and he carries it well. All in all, this little bit of theater history is well worth repeating.

Archive Review: Keely Smith

From April 2007:

Keely Smith is one of those performers whom I think should be a gay icon, but for some reason isn’t. It could be because in her early career she was her husband’s second banana—she first came to fame as the “girl singer” who performed with late Vegas luminary Louis Prima, the guy who first sang “Just a Gigolo “ and “Jump, Jive and Wail.” She was, nonetheless, a great favorite of such leading lights as Count Basie, Elvis Presley and JFK. 

Smith, currently at the Café Carlyle, is simply the most relaxed performer I’ve ever seen in a cabaret; full of raucous jokes about how she likes much younger men. She claims to be “too old” for the up-tempo numbers that she and Louis sang (but not too old for sex, she notes). Still, Keely delivers lots of rhythmic pow for those songs, enough pow for several powder kegs. But it’s the ballads where Smith really shines, delivering such sophisticated fare as “The Way You Look Tonight” in a burnished, glowing alto that drips with warmth. Whether you like it hot and hard-driving or cool and smooth, Smith does it all with breathtaking ease.