January 5, 2007
Volume 35
Issue 01
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Bits & Bytes
New York offers wide variety of Gay-themed plays, Drowsy Chaperone delights in every minute, Grey Gardens, Spring Awakening transfer hits
New York offers wide variety of Gay-themed plays, Drowsy Chaperone delights in every minute, Grey Gardens, Spring Awakening transfer hits by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

New York City: Nearly 10 years after the much publicized clean-up of Times Square, 42nd Street and the notorious 8th Avenue, sex is back in New York's theater district. This time, it's on stage in new plays and musicals. Where 25 cent peep shows once ruled the fabled 42nd Street, beautifully restored historic theaters have sex stage center--at $110 a seat.

As a Wall Street Journal critic described a new musical, there's "rape, incest, homosexuality, sadomasochism, autoeroticism and abortion"-plus endless straight sex between the 14 and 15-year old characters. And Spring Awakening--the show under review-is one of the biggest hits of the season. Bits&Bytes crammed 13 performances into a recent six night stay-a personal record for this theater fan and fanatic. A quick rundown of the Gay-related productions:

The Drowsy Chaperone, a holdover hit from last spring, turned out to be everything this scribe hoped it would be. The Tony Award winning production missed the Tony Award as Best Musical, but it's turned into a long running escapist romp that repaid its multi-million dollar investment in a record breaking eight months.

The short, snappy tap-happy show is really two shows in one. "The Man In Chair," an impish Bob Martin, who won a Tony for writing the book of the hit musical, welcomes the audience to his cramped studio apartment. Obviously a Gay man, the self-proclaimed "show queen" offers to play his rarest recording, a 1950's LP reissue of 1928's nearly forgotten Roaring 20's musical, The Drowsy Chaperone.

As he narrates the 1920's show-and "tells all" about the now forgotten cast members-the show comes to life in his run-down apartment. Characters step out of the refrigerator, out of the oven, out of his fold-up Murphy bed. Scenic pieces float down but-in a wonderfully clever design idea-the apartment never disappears. The show is in his mind and in his memory, and that's all the captivated audience needs.

Sutton Foster, the understudy who shot to Tony Award-winning fame in Broadway's Thoroughly Modern Millie several seasons back, is Janet Van De Graaff, the Broadway star who plans to give up fame and fortune for true love.

Faster than you can say "Julie Andrews and The Boy Friend," Janet and her showbiz friends tap and Charleston their way into his apartment. Idiotic plot complications dominate the 1920's musical-within-the-musical but a predictable happy ending leaves the audience joyously happy. It simply shouldn't work-but does.

While The Man In Chair never openly comes out-his mannerisms and wink-wink comments to the real audience clearly make him "A Friend Of Dorothy." ("What? You're surprised that I was married? Many of us were&.")

At December's Gypsy Of The Year, Equity Fights AIDS fundraiser, the Chaperone cast took first place. The final scene of the musical finds The Man In Chair alone in his apartment with a blown fuse. The superintendent enters to fix the electrical problem. Transfixed by the cast album, the super sits down with The Man to listen to yet another playing of the rare LP.

In the Gypsy Of The Year skit, the final scene is replayed except that the two men fall madly in lust and consummate their Gay attraction as the Chaperone cast looks on, aghast. The skit was a big winner-and so is The Drowsy Chaperone.

The Manhattan Theatre Club has a major hit on its hands with the Gay-themed Regrets Only by openly Gay playwright Paul (Jeffrey, Hollywood's In & Out) Rudnick.

The comedy, just extended by popular demand, is technically off-Broadway so Christine Baranski's star turn as a wealthy socialite will not earn her a Tony nomination as Best Actress, but her performance is the key ingredient in this stylish comedy of Gay manners.

George Grizzard, Mary Testa and Baranski headline the cast but the ensemble performances and the solid, on-target direction by Christopher Ashley (who directed the film version of Jeffrey) make Regrets Only a winner in every department.

The plot is waver thin-one New York critic described it as "chiffon thin." A noted, openly Gay fashion designer is asked to design a wedding dress for his goddaughter. She and her father, both lawyers, get a chance to work for the White House in anti-Gay legislation. The fashion designer cannot imagine friends for 40 years turning against him. So, he organizes a one-day-only Gay and Lesbian walk out, which happens to be the day before the wedding.

There are no design shops open, no florists report to work. The family maid-"the only white Jewish maid left in Manhattan"-walks out. "I thought you were Jewish," wails the socialite. "You can be a member of two minorities at one time," the maid snaps as she exits.

"I went to St. Patrick's today," the grandmother exclaims, "and there were no priests there. None." The play is full of snappy one-liners. "Is it cold outside? Do I need another diamond bracelet?" asks Baranski in a throwaway line that sums up her character. Rudnick's play is bound to be a crossover hit-Seattle will undoubtedly see it next season at ACT, the Rep or Intiman. It has "hit" written all over it.

A huge hit off-Broadway last spring, Spring Awakening moved to The Great White Way this winter. Some critics-like the New York Times-raved about and noted that it heralded a new era of rock musicals on Broadway. Others-like the Wall Street Journal scribe quoted above--dismissed it as a "wallow in the perennial sorrows of youth."

Based on a still-controversial 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening dared to discuss teenage sex-straight sex, Gay and Lesbian sex, graphic masturbation and more. As recently as 10 years ago, a Toronto group tried to have a production of the historic play closed on grounds of indecency. As an off-Broadway play, the production must have been a knockout. As a Broadway offering, at Broadway prices, the show seems questionable to Bits&Bytes.

Teenage homosexuality gets a good percentage of the focus, especially fantasies of one male student-"he looks so nasty in his tight khakis." The Gay duet features poetic but graphic lyrics. "You'll be my wound," the submissive student sings. "And I will wound you," the aggressive one replies as he turns him over.

As in Hair and The Rocky Horror Show decades ago, the cast uses microphone cords as extensions of their bodies. In Spring Awakening, cordless mics are also used-often as phallic weapons of the actor's personalities.

Michael Mayer's creative direction, Bill T. Jones' choreography, music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics and book by Steven Sater all blend together to make this new musical work. The ensemble cast is clearly talented with Jonathan Groff giving a charismatic, career-launching performance as Melchior, the most popular boy in school.

While the play uses modern technology, it retains its 1891 setting and costuming. Somehow, the rock music-or at least this Broadway version of rock music-works in the period setting. Special attention has been paid to historic underwear-each seduction takes forever as characters fumble with layers and layers of "underpinnings." Even the boys have rows and rows of tiny buttons to release prior to sexual couplings.

The openly Gay playwright of Hollywood's drag queen classic, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, has a major hit with The Little Dog Laughed, another Gay-themed work that moved to Broadway after a smash run last spring off-Broadway.

Julie White gets the role of a lifetime as the Hollywood agent-from-hell, Diane, whose machine-gun vocal delivery punctures each character with comic wounds that may never heal. Her hot new star, Mitchell, "suffers from a slight, reoccurring case of homosexuality."

Mitchell is on the edge of a major career, and Diane is hungry for her 10 per cent of a hot new star. But Mitchell wants to come out before stardom hits. And he has the hots for Alex, a $200 a trick male hustler from the "Manhattan School Boys" Escort Service-"the merit badge that dare not speak its name." Diane, correctly, dismisses Alex as "a Twinkie fuck."

As a Lesbian herself, she proposes a logical teaming with Mitchell-as she tells the audience in one of many asides, "I'm a Lesbian, he's a fag-a perfect showbiz couple." She charmingly-and hysterically-dismisses major English authors: "Auden, Isherwood-a couple of dead British cocksuckers."

Television's Tom Everett Scott is solid as Mitchell (although the lesser known actor who created the part off-Broadway got better reviews), but Johnny Galecki is far, far too old to play the 20 year old hustler. The show is "still finding its audience" on Broadway, but GLBT audiences know a hit when they see one. Julie White is a shoo-in for a Tony nomination this spring as Best Actress. Check it out.

Openly Gay playwright Doug Wright won the Tony and Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife, the true story of a long forgotten German transvestite of the World War II era. For the new musical, Grey Gardens, Wright teams with Scott Frankel and openly Gay lyricist Michael Korie, They tell the true life story of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter "Little" Edie Beale, distant cousins of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Their East Hampton mansion on Long Island, Grey Gardens, went from a society destination in the 1940s to a "28 room litter box" in the 1970s.

Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole plays both major characters in the musical's two acts-the mother in Act One, set in 1941, and the daughter, "Little" Edie, set in 1973. The unlikely off-Broadway hit transferred to Broadway this fall. It is, of course, based on the award winning 1974 documentary film of the same name by Albert and David Maysles.

There is no doubt that Ebersole gives an outstanding performance as the two women. Her work in Act Two, as the mentally ill Little Edie will go down in theater history and undoubtedly win her a Tony Award nomination this spring as Best Actress in a Musical. Given that all the praise is well deserved, the show is curiously lacking in heart-and continuity.

Act One, the "before" episode, is actually the strongest of the two parts, in a conventional Broadway musical manner. Act Two features knockout performances by Ebersole and Broadway veteran Mary Louise Wilson, playing the now bedridden Edith. The continuity problem is that Wilson bears no resemblance-physically, emotionally or musically-to the social butterfly of Act One. And the same is true of Ebersole's Little Edie. The charming Erin Davie, a delight as the radiantly young Edie in Act One, disappears from the cast.

Structurally, Grey Gardens has serious problems. Musically it often seems derivative. Performances are strong, sometimes extraordinary. Like several other off-Broadway transfers, Grey Gardens is "still finding its audience." The show-a "must see" for many theater fanatics-is almost always available at the half-priced ticket both in Times Square.

The paring of Nathan Lane and Simon Gray's classic Gay-themed Butley seemed like theater magic from the start. This revival was first staged last season by Boston's Huntington Theatre Company with Lane winning rave reviews for his performance as Ben Butley, a London college professor who's having a really bad day. In one day, Butley's wife leaves him, his Gay lover leaves him and his job is in jeopardy.

Lane, the (now) openly Gay actor and Broadway favorite, seemed a perfect choice of the tragic, comic professor. Alan Bates has scored a huge success in the early 1970s with his stage and film follow up. Alas, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go astray-as theater fans know only too well.

Lane plays Butley like a stand up comic-every line seems a laugh line in this production. The tragedy under the comic veneer of the anguished professor is totally missing in this popular revival which closes its limited engagement late this month. Julian Ovenden, a British actor in his Broadway debut, is sensational as the departing lover. The ever-dependable Dana Ivey (who created the title role in Driving Miss Daisy on stage) anchors the production as the totally appealing but befuddled Edna Shaft.

(Bits&Bytes caught Butley at a special Actor's Fund Special Performance, an added Sunday night performance with all the cast and crew donating their time and talents. New York visitors should check all shows for these added performances-it makes it possible to see a show at an alternate time and add to the theatrical tally.)

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