review: closer to heaven
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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