Jefferson Performing Arts Society kicks off its Westbank 46th season stage productions with Steel Magnolias this month at the Westwego Cultural Center on Sala Avenue in Westwego. The show runs for two weekends, Thursdays through Sundays, from Thursday, September 21 through Sunday, October 1.
JPAS will present two more stage plays at the intimate setting of the Westwego Cultural Center as part of its 46th season: Looped (November 9-19, 2023) about Tallulah Bankhead, featuring Leslie Castay in the lead role, and The Mountaintop (January 25-February 4, 2024), about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final hours, in a surprising and spiritual story that takes place in the Lorraine Motel. Auditions for this show are underway and the cast will be announced soon.
For tickets and information, visit www.jpas.org or call the box office at 504-885-200. All shows will be onstage at the Westwego Cultural Center.
The View UpStairs
Review by Paul Oswell
On June 24th 1973, 32 people died in an arson attack on a gay bar called The UpStairs Lounge in the French Quarter. The devastation was compounded at the time by a shameful, callous reaction to the loss of life from so-called religious leaders (even given that one of the deceased was a Reverend) and city officials alike. It remained the most horrific, violent act against the LGBTQ community until the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016.
Before anything, we remember and honor the memory of those who lost their lives.
This may sound like an unlikely backdrop to a life-affirming musical, but playwright and composer Max Vernon was moved to create The View UpStairs in 2013, this one-act production first performed at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in New York in 2017.
Unless it was just to be a straight retelling of the events, a conceit was necessary, and so Vernon presents a kind of living flashback to that night. Wes (Donyae Asante), a hyper-modern influencer, has - oblivious to its history - just purchased a derelict lounge bar and tells his online followers that he can’t wait to transform it into a trendy art space.
The audience is asked to make a sudden leap as his presence somehow opens up a portal in time, and he is transported back to 1973, where it's just another night for the UpStairs regulars. It’s important to remember that much of queer life was illegal at this time, and so places to socialize were rare, the clientele ranging from vagrants to men of the cloth.
Among others, we meet firecracker bartender Henri (Lauren Sparacello), piano man Buddy (Marshall Harris), theatrical Freddy (Eddie Lockwood, who also designed the costumes), pastor Richard (Tom Vaughn), queer elder Willie (Rayshaughn Armant) and hustlers Patrick and Dale (Ty Robbins and Justice Hues).
The sense of family is apparent from the off, with a wonderful chorus adding to the opening’s song and dance numbers, a whole world and its dynamic efficiently conjured. Wes imagines himself to be hallucinating at first, but he quickly adapts and before long is explaining phone apps and the vacuity of contemporary life.
This theme has some easy laughs as the bar patrons dismiss his rants, and while it’s not the most interesting part of the night, it’s an empathetic bridge that allows us all to cross. Issues - some of which still resonate today - are discussed and fought over...the behavior of the hustlers, the spiritual health of the group, how to deal with a police raid. Some people fight, while others pretend to be straight married men, the eternal conflict between pragmatism and idealism.
Asante is tremendously charismatic as he deftly navigates a difficult role, veering from cartoonish arrogance to being mystified and lovelorn as he and Patrick - played with note-perfect, easy assurance by Robbins - start to fall for each other despite the odds. Lockwood shines as a drag queen, beaten on the street and comforted by his mother (JeAnne Marcus) before an entertaining “we’ve got just one night to put on the best show ever” subplot. Mostly in the background, Justice Hues grapples with a gradual descent into desperation with real aplomb.
Almost all of the cast are on stage for the entirety of the 100-minute run time, and I want to especially commend the chorus. Given the time-travel aspect, the show relies on the integrity of creating a realistic 1970s world, and they do an excellent job. Jack Lampert’s direction, and the choreography of Monica Ordoñez are both admirable in their dynamism and realism.
The music and songs deliver a sense of comradery and maintain an emotional resonance. There are some seriously impressive pipes on stage, particularly from Donyae Asante, Lauren Sparacello, Rayshaughn Armant and soprano JeAnne Marcus.
There are some memorable lines, and I laughed out loud when Asante begs “Give me one more chance to ruin your life!” Harris and Armant expertly tease out their characters, while Eddie Lockwood brings their skills as one of the city’s most creative burlesque performers, and they are similarly a joy to watch.
The set and book do a great job in taking us back to the early 1970s, capturing the linguistic and aesthetic ticks and contrasting them nicely with the relentless modernity embodied by Wes. It’s a love story, a cautionary tale of modern superficiality, and a gut-wrenching tragedy all in one.
It’s also a piece of New Orleans history that asks us to keep in mind both the devastating consequences of one man’s torment, but also the barbaric indifference of our institutions when a compassionate, human response was needed, but from them, none came. Many times, our found families are the ones that matter the most.
The View UpStairs plays at Jefferson Performing Arts Center through September 17th. More information and tickets here.
Star Crossed: A Midsummer Nightmare
Review by Amelia Parenteau
In a New Orleans summer rife with Shakespeare, Fat Squirrel serves up a manic retelling of the canon with 'Star Crossed: A Midsummer Nightmare'. Combining text, themes, and characters from over 17 of Shakespeare’s plays, Andrea Watson conceived and directed this original production with an ensemble cast of 18 performers. Watson herself stars as Mercutio, the mercurial agent of chaos tying the divergent plot lines together with his insatiable need for scheming.
Like any grand family reunion, the play features many familiar characters and several stunning performances. Laura Bernas is a powerhouse as Fairy King Oberon, taking inordinate delight in drugging Titania (Lizzy Bruce), the Fairy Queen, for nefarious revenge. Mary Pauley as Juliet’s Nurse showcases her phenomenal range, pulling laughs one moment and tenderly tugging heartstrings the next. Elyse McDaniel plays a fierce, spiteful Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, deftly holding the spotlight even while having her lines, spoken in Spanish, simultaneously spoken in English by the Translator (Kaylon Willoughby).
Taking advantage of the large ensemble cast, Watson created beautiful stage pictures, including a striking tableau to open the show, with characters garbed in the tunics of Ancient Athens and holding statuesque poses. Court dances and stage combat were high points of the action in an otherwise dialogue-heavy script.
The soundtrack combined moody indie rock hits with instrumental underscoring, which could have gone even further to highlight dramatic moments: I would have loved a swelling orchestra beneath Romeo and Juliet’s first ecstatic kiss, for example. “Star Crossed” delivers on unabashedly queer romance, with Hermia (Hannah Dougharty) and Helena (Desirée Burrell) as one of the central pairs of lovers, and Titania falling head-over-heels for the Nurse in her love-potioned trance.
Perhaps the truest madness is daring to love at all, knowing that after all humans, gods, and fairies’ machinations in life, we each inevitably meet our end in death? Unless we’re lucky enough to have a poet or playwright keep telling our tale.
“Star Crossed” runs through August 24, 2023. Tickets and more information available here.
Miss Rose: A Cabaret Play
The Marigny Opera House (this performance relocated to the New Marigny Theatre)
When we arrive, we are given two programs, “One that the company made and one that Miss Rose made.” The latter is a primitive-looking single sheet, headed ‘The Tarrytown Care Center Presents: Rose’s Turn’.
This is the cabaret within the play, a ‘turn’ of songs and stories performed by the character of Rose Williams. In real life, Rose was the sister of Tom ‘Tennessee’ Williams, who was institutionalized for her entire life after a failed lobotomy. Reportedly a real-life inspiration to Mr Williams (certainly for some of his most famous characters - e.g. Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie), in this world, she is an entertainer, just looking to express herself and put on a show for her baby brother’s birthday, despite her circumstances.
It’s a simple but immersive set, and we ourselves play the part of an audience (her fellow patients?) that don’t show up, but are imagined. A sad table of refreshments languishes expectantly in the corner. A pianist (music director Audrey Smith) accompanies the songs, and a nurse (assistant director Alston Brown) conducts, directs and sometimes participates in the skits.
Set over a series of visits, the opening has an agitated Tennessee seemingly there just to get away from production woes on his new play. She makes fun of him, playfully calling him ‘Idaho’, and attempting to both delight and goad him with family memories and shared experiences that veer between wholesome and traumatic. This is a pattern that repeats itself, the siblings often caught in cycles of euphoric reminiscing and raw confrontation.
Rebecca Gibel plays Rose with a fierce dexterity and charisma, flitting between ebullient dramatics and erratic psychosis. Songs are played for laughs as well as sympathies, scenes and games from their childhoods evoke joy and trauma in equal measure. Gibel has a wonderful voice and timing, which might not ring completely true, but the cabaret itself can’t be too amateurish or it would be a challenge to sit through. In short: she and the direction strike a great balance and Gibel is impressively fearless and completely entertaining.
Leicester Landon plays Tennessee/Tom with a louche touch, at once coy and outrageous, with many a bon mot, served awash with sultry, southern allure. Landon’s physicality, sometimes brooding, sometimes camp, but always dynamic, is a very strong aspect of his acting. He carries a comically surreal scene equating creative and literal constipation with hilarious aplomb, and rolls with the verbal jabs that he and Rose - like most brothers and sisters - use to lift and belittle each other with equal effect.
The visits bounce between elation and despair, Rose wrestling with her social and romantic solitude is as visceral as Tom confronting his sexuality in an unforgiving time (one that sadly has unwelcome modern-day relevance). The play presents the discrete sessions as one continuous play in Rose’s mind, meaning that the coherence is never lost, though a couple of very minor trims would make for a leaner, more punchy last half hour in this layman’s opinion.
Writer-directors Kenny Prestininzi and Christopher Winslow have a debut that they can be very proud of, though. Gibel and Landon have an engaging chemistry, and the framing is a compelling way into the exploration of this complicated, but fundamentally loving relationship. Kudos also to Audrey Smith and Alston Brown, who help finesse the world on stage with their musical and theatrical flourishes. With any luck, this production will return for next year’s Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival - I’ll definitely be there to see it again if that happens.
See upcoming shows at the Marigny Opera House
Chekov's Fun: Vanya & Sonia & Masha and Spike
Review by Ameila Parenteau
Rounding out its first season, new-to-the-scene Crescent City Stage presents Vanya & Sonia & Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, a belly-laugh comedy that centers on the narcissistic despair of its three titular siblings: Vanya (Doug Spearman), Sonia (Jana Mestecky), and Masha (Lorene Chesley). Yes, they’re named after Chekhov characters, and the script is littered with easter eggs for theater buffs, but even those with no knowledge of Chekhov’s oeuvre will find this 2.5-hour escapade wildly entertaining.
Michael A. Newcomer’s scenic design furnishes a sumptuous bohemian-meets-mid-century-modern living room in the siblings’ family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the entirety of the action takes place. Vanya and Sonia live listlessly in this house they inherited after their parents died, while Masha foots the bill for their languorous lifestyle as a world-famous movie star.
The play begins with 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf'-level bickering between Vanya and Sonia, revealing Sonia pines for Vanya, and she was adopted. The pair have spent the past 15 years taking care of their aging parents and find themselves purposeless without them. The tone veers from heightened poetic realism as Vanya and Sonia retread the tedium of their matinal rituals, to theatrically absurd with the entrance of their housekeeper Cassandra (Donyae Asante) and her daily prophecy of doom.
The comedy ramps up as Masha breezes in with her significantly younger boytoy, Spike (Cody Evans), who can’t keep his shirt on for the life of him. Speaking of shirts, Tiffani Sheriff’s costume design adeptly emphasizes each character’s idiosyncrasy, from glamorous Masha to fastidious Vanya. Act one builds to a costume party at the neighbor’s house, with the threat of Chekhovian tragedy descending on the farcical fun, as Masha is threatening to sell the family home, thereby evicting Vanya and Sonia (as Cassandra had warned).
Act two showcases the cast’s comedic and dramatic chops, including Sonia and Masha’s pity party dressed as princesses on the couch, competing for Vanya’s sympathy, and fawning neighbor Nina (Yvette Bourgeois) trawling her depths to embody a molecule in the performance of Vanya’s climate apocalypse play-within-a-play. Liam Gardner’s lighting design provides the perfect backdrop to brilliant, wild Cassandra’s prophetic outbursts, and Amara Skinner’s sound design supplies a fun soundtrack to accompany the characters’ mood swings.
An unusual climax comes in the form of a Boomer humor nostalgia tour monologue from Vanya, berating Spike for his lack of appreciation for how things were: “The past was idiotic, but I miss parts of it. […] Though it was extremely boring, it was something we shared.” Durang can’t help but deliver a happy ending, and Vanya & Sonia & Masha give Spike the boot and accept a new appreciation of their uncertain middle age. Neither idiotic nor boring, this Chekhov in the twenty-first century spin-off is an American response to Russian existentialism, full of hubris and humor.
Vanya & Sonia & Masha and Spike runs through June 30. Tickets and more information available here.
Review by Amelia Parenteau
A warm, chatty audience assembled to take in PearlDamour’s Ocean Filibuster at the CAC, furthered warmed by the locally-cast ensemble of “activists” walking up and down the aisles with clipboards, asking us to sign their petition if we “stood with the ocean.” Originally commissioned in 2016 by the American Repertory Theater in partnership with the Harvard University Center for the Environment, Ocean Filibuster attempts the impossible: letting the vast, unknowable Ocean speak for itself.
The audience was seated facing a stark white stage, with a “Global Federation - Humans on Earth” seal projected upstage and Sorkin-esque music on loop. As the show begins, we learn we’re attending a special session of the Global Senate. “Mr. Majority” (Jennifer Kidwell) presents his “End of Ocean Bill” to “put the ocean out of its misery” by draining vast parts of it, thus creating more land and a smaller, condensed set of “seven seas” to cut our losses and continue sustaining human life on this planet for the foreseeable future. This speech is underscored by Evan Spigelman patriotically clashing cymbals, ever the comedic genius.
Then the anthropomorphized Ocean (also played by Kidwell) appears in a gown made of plastic bags to filibuster the bill. The Ocean goes on to regale the audience with a myriad of original songs, composed by Sxip Shirey, scientific facts, imaginings, and objections to the notion that humans (ourselves made of 60% water) could survive without it. Kidwell is magnificent, deftly transitioning between characters, wryly interacting with the audience, and singing their heart out.
As the Ocean contains multitudes, the ensemble periodically returns, dressed in diaphanous robes and coral-like headpieces, to amplify songs with their chorus of voices. The design for this show is outrageously good, from glorious costumes by Olivera Gajic to otherworldly projections by Stivo Arnoczy and Tal Yarden, and immaculate sound design by Andrew Lynch and Sxip Shirey.
At intermission, the audience is invited into the lobby to interact with several stations: activism resources to be gleaned through QR codes, a couple underwater dance parties, a sand art display of the composite ingredients of humans and oceans, and AR depictions of ocean life available via iPads.
Part two begins with Kidwell luxuriously draped over the Senate desk for some coy hilarity, followed by more songs, the end of the filibuster, inevitable manipulation by Mr. Majority, and a dreamscape of what ifs — envisioning if humans remembered we are, in fact, a part of the global ecosystem, rather than extractive parasites draining the planet for all it’s worth. The activists return for a final chorus, a whale song sung in the round (literally around the audience), and then we all trickled off into the night.
The creators’ key word was “wonder,” as the Ocean sings: “Isn’t it enough that I am beautiful? Just stand back, and wonder.” Confronted with the enormity of the climate crisis, no work of theater can offer tidy resolution. Instead, Ocean Filibuster asks its audience to be willing to be immersed in experience, open to feelings as well as facts. I, for one, was happy to swim around in that world, for a while.
Ocean Filibuster has ended its run but check out upcoming events at the CAC here.
Review by Amelia Parenteau
To open its 30th season, the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane presents Twelfth Night, directed by AJ Allegra. Allegra’s version of Twelfth Night is placed in 1950s Italy, as evidenced by the set’s colorful two-story façades and town square with a faux marble fountain laced with climbing ivy, designed by Joan Long. The audience sits surrounding 3 sides of the stage, and with actors entering and exiting from 4 different access points, feels enmeshed in the comings and goings of this charming Illyria.
Whose Italy we’re inhabiting varies from character to character. Tia René Williams brings a strong Strega Nona vibe (and accent) to the town square, while Mike Harkins and Keith Claverie as Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, respectively, lean more Sopranos. Allegra’s direction keeps a tight pace, which serves the comedic timing of the many pranks and plots unspooling throughout this story, while also allowing for moments of stillness for the audience to soak up the lyrical acoustic music composed by Ainsley Matich, performed live by Rich Dally III, Noah Hazzard, and Steven Rose.
One particularly delightful piece of staging was the 3 Stooges-esque trio of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Fabian (Noah Hazzard) spying on Malvolio (Graham Burk) through three shuttered doors on the upstairs balcony as he reads the faux love letter intended to humiliate him. Similarly, the dramatic irony at the end of the play is almost unbearable as the characters fail to understand there are siblings afoot rather than just one rascal Cesario, deliciously exacerbated by staggered staging, keeping Viola just out of Sebastian’s eyeline.
While the word play and “sword” play and poor Malvolio in his yellow stockings, cross-gartered, still hold their charm some 420 years after Twelfth Night was written, Viola’s cross-dressing for survival made me yearn for an unabashedly queer telling of this story. Instead of telling him/her “Cesario, come/ For so you shall be, while you are a man./ But when in other habits you are seen, Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen,” what if, in the final moments, Orsino was proud to be seen in public with his male-passing lover?
As always, Kacie Thomassie’s costumes dazzle, particularly the mourning ensemble and whoops-I’m-in-love floral number worn impeccably by Brittany N. Williams. Mandi Wood’s lighting design and Mike Harkins’ sound design rounded out the Mediterranean world, and achieved a hilarious climax with a warm, rose-colored spotlight on the door to Olivia’s chambers while Italian opera swelled and Sebastian and Olivia enjoyed each other’s company, if you will.
Twelfth Night runs through June 24, 2023. Tickets and more information available here.
Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird
The Saenger Theater
Aaron Sorkin (best known for writing The West Wing) adapted of Harper Lee's classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, opening on Broadway in 2018. Directed by Bartlett Sher, the play is set in Alabama in 1934, focusing on steely-but-fair lawyer Atticus Finch, representing a young Black man who has been falsely accused of sexual assault.
The story is told from the perspective of its young protagonists, Scout, Jem, and Dill. Melanie Moore and Justin Mark are suitably youthful and exuberant as the Finch siblings, with Steven Lee Johnson's Dill bringing some balancing comedic moments.
Sorkin takes a few risks with the adaptation, choosing to focus on Atticus (the excellent Richard Thomas) and playing up his dignity and morality as a small town lawyer under pressure from his largely racist community. Thomas plays especially well against Jacqueline Williams, the housekeeper Calpurnia, who has a notable depth and stands up to Atticus when necessary. She has a memorable line when told about the stuff that doesn't kill us making us stronger: "But what about the stuff that kills us?"
The play addresses dark subject matter, including the machinations of the KKK and the implied sexual abuse in a local family, something that the film version shied away from. Period-appropriate slurs are difficult to hear in the modern day, but certainly conjure up the viciousness of the situation. Arianna Gayle Stucki plays the difficult part of Mayella Ewell, the teenager who accuses Tom Robinson. Robinson is expertly portrayed by Glenn Fleary, and contributes memorably to the incredibly evocative courtroom scene.
It’s a large and adept cast, including Mary Badham, who appeared in the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird as Scout (earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress). She effectively retired from acting shortly after the release and has done very few roles, making her theater debut here as the bigoted Mrs. Henry Dubose. A piece of Hollywood history live on stage, then, and a sometimes chilling but hopefully optimistic story ensues, to which Sorkin has brought his customary rigor.
It's received wisdom that to understand folk, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. One of the themes revealed in To Kill A Mockingbird is that good people like Robinson already do this, so to create a just world, the trick is to make bad folk do this as well.
To Kill A Mockingbird runs at The Saenger Theater through June 4th. Tickets and show info here.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Review by Amelia Parenteau
The NOLA Project’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Brittany N. Williams, is a romp,
and this tight 2-hour production flies in the face of anyone who alleges The Bard’s works are
boring. Incidentally, this production marks a full circle moment for The NOLA Project, having
performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream as their first sculpture garden production, back in
As I settled into my picnic blanket with my fellow “groundlings” at the New Orleans Museum of
Art’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden, I was struck by both the honey-colored sun cloaking the
Spanish moss in the live oak trees on stage, and the multigenerational audience surrounding
me. Not to mention the Backstreet Boys crooning from the sound system.
Just as the audience trickled into the garden, the characters gradually entered the stage in the
round, garbed in early aughts summer chic, greeting each other, preparing the space for the
storytelling about to unfold. It felt as though we’d all been invited back in time, not just to the
pre-cell phone, pre-social media era of 2002, when this production was set, but to a medieval
village fair. Or perhaps the city of Athens, Greece, and its surrounding woods…
Like a dream, this play has subplots galore and intentionally blurs the lines between fact and
fiction, particularly as the fairies delight in interfering with the mortals’ realities. This includes
the play within a play, Pyramus and Thisbe, whose plot bears a striking resemblance to Romeo
and Juliet, played farcically in this context. As a traditional comedy, the story ends in marriage,
not only of Theseus and Hippolyta, but also the pairs of lovers who have finally aligned their
desires: Hermia and Lysander, and Demetrius and Helena.
For a story as layered and complicated as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Williams’ direction and
the ensemble cast’s fabulous performances render the story truly accessible. To enhance the
feeling of communal experience, the actors’ sotto voce commentary underscoring the primary
action or dialogue added a realistic and often quite humorous touch. J’aiLa Price as Helena was
the perfect fiery foil to Alexandria Miles’ sugar sweet Hermia (until the tables were turned, of
In one spectacular moment of worlds colliding, Titania, the fairy queen exquisitely played by
Monica R. Harris, references the moon and points to it, and all the characters on stage gaze up
adoringly, causing the audience to also turn around and behold: the real moon! A glowing
crescent, slipping in and out of clouds.
This production truly had something for everyone: malaprops, innuendo, fairies on stilts,
Eminem, theater magic (like when Puck, the fairy king’s henchman, seemingly illuminates the
canopy of string lights by tossing an orb of light into the sky), impassioned soliloquies, bumbling
fools, magic potions, lovers’ quarrels, fart jokes. Kaci Thomassie and Bridget Ann Boyle’s costume and prop design were outstanding, including delightful details such as the lion’s mane
made of yellow rubber gloves in the play within a play. Emblematic of the entire production’s
fantastical melding of the absurd with the everyday, “these things do thus please me that befall
preposterously,” to quote a certain woodland sprite.
See the NOLA projects upcoming productions here.
Heaven deadly sins: Closer To Heaven
Review by Paul Oswell
I once saw a touring Broadway production of Kinky Boots, a musical set in the factories of a provincial English town. Nothing in the musical references England (geographically or linguistically), though, and so the artistic decision to have the entire cast perform in strikingly bad British accents baffled me.
Closer To Heaven is set in London, but with its script full of flats and birds and wankers, there’s nowhere to hide, and it would sound much stranger in American accents. Thankfully, this cast of UNO students do a better job than the Kinky Boots professionals, and likely only my fine-tuned British ear picked up on a few minor wobbles.
With music by pop veterans the Pet Shop Boys and book by collaborator Jonathan Harvey, Closer To Heaven is a disco drama, framed by a London nightclub and populated by a sea of lost souls. Innocent Shell (Adrienne Simmons) arrives in the big city to meet aging raver and club manager Vic (Aaron Brewer), her estranged gay father. Wide-eyed barman Straight Dave (Mason Willis) is trying to make his way as a pop star and club host Billie Trix (Laurel Tannehill) is a chaotic, Teutonic diva dining out on past glories and narcotics.
The plot strands (Shell and Vic fight, Dave falls in love but is sexually confused, Dave vies with a mercenary pop mogul) take place in variously seedy corners - the club, back offices, bedrooms, saunas. The world building is drug and sex fuelled, though I wish slightly more of it had evolved on the dance floor, as the chorus numbers with their more intricate choreography are where the lights shone most brightly for me.
Adrienne Simmons and Laurel Tannehill stand out, the former with notably elevated dance moves and a note-perfect accent, the latter with spectacularly dramatic psychedelic breakdowns and rants, peppered with touching moments of maternal clarity. Mason Willis’ driven but naive ingénu is impulsive and charismatic, and there’s good energy between him, Shell, and Jose J Figueroa as Mile End Lee, the cheeky yet tragic neighborhood drug runner.
I very much enjoyed (perhaps not ‘enjoyed’? You know what I mean) the Weinsteinian creepiness of Bob Saunders (Max Corcoran), an odious music industry boss, wielding predatory power from under a bath towel. Payton Wright as sidekick Flynn is also a treat, with some of the night’s best camp quips and a hilarious ketamine-tinged diatribe. Aaron Brewer handles Vic's redemption arc with graceful aplomb.
The songs (not Pet Shop Boys singles, sadly, but numbers written for this musical) edge towards balladry rather than bangers, although second-half opener It’s Just My Little Tribute To Caligula, Darling! is a fun, hi-octane romp. The ambience is more atmospheric dinge and low-lit gratification than shiny, glitter-strewn dancefloors.
Kudos to L Kalo Gow’s direction, and the lighting and set design for believable, near-seamless flits between shady city corners. The world feels aesthetically and emotionally consistent, and the dangers, inspiration, hedonism and tragedies of young love, queerness and urban life are creatively delivered. Shout out to the chorus, who danced and sang with entertaining gusto, and pathos when called for.
There are some bravely-undertaken explicit scenes, and as they’re played for truth rather than titillation, it’s kind of an unsure, exploratory eroticism. It’s not an easy ask for young actors to perform love scenes in front of a live audience, but there’s an impressive honesty to it - sincere credit to Adrienne Simmons, Mason Willis and Jose J Figueroa for navigating these with artistic integrity.
It’s a tricky show to pull off, what with the accents and the material and the choreography, but I left uplifted, and there’s a poignant celebration of queer legends as a finale. Come with an open mind, and you’ll surely get the most out of this show’s big heart.
Closer To Heaven runs at the Robert E. Nims Theatre on UNO’s campus through May 6th. More info and tickets.
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