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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Harvey Fierstein Double-Header: Torch Song Sings, Kinky Boots Still Has Sex In the Heel

Ward Horton, Jack DiFalco, Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl, photo @ Joan Marcus
I guess the 2017-18 is the season of Seminal Gay Theater revivals. In the spring a highly acclaimed London production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America is coming to Broadway. There was already much hysteria during the Ticketmaster pre-sale where good seats were going for well over $300. But if you want something slightly less lengthy and costly Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy has been revised and shortened to Torch Song and is currently playing off-Broadway until December 9. I saw it this afternoon and highly recommend it.

The play spans the 1970's to 1970's and follows the life and times of neurotic, love-starved drag queen Arnold. David Zinn's sets are a wonderful recreation of that era. Michael Urie as Arnold has almost nothing in common with Harvey Fierstein on the surface. Fierstein was larger-than-life and LARGE, period. The androgynous, noodly-limbed Urie looks like a generic pretty boy. But Urie is like Fierstein a very engaging actor who has the ability to draw the audience into the drama the minute the curtains go up. Arnold's opening soliloquy immediately establishes him as a likable, funny, charismatic character. Someone we want to spend the next three hours with. An example of his wit: "An ugly person who goes after a pretty person gets nothing but trouble. But a pretty person who goes after an ugly person gets at least cab fare." Urie is also like Fierstein in that he's a fearless performer who will do anything to get a reaction. His simulation of a dark-room dive bar sexual encounter is hysterical.



Fierstein and Estelle Getty in the original Torch Song Trilogy
The heart of Torch Song is Arnold's on-again, off-again relationship with the "happily married" Ed (Ward Horton, whose generic good looks and vanilla personality make him believable as someone who can code-switch effortlessly between homosexuality and heterosexuality).  We first see Ed as he's cruising a gay bar and "sees" Arnold (who is offstage, so Ed is talking to the audience). Ed pays Arnold a heartfelt compliment and then goes in for the move. The play takes place over many years and Arnold finds another man (Michael Rosen plays Alan, Arnold's much younger boyfriend) and Ed gets married to Laurel (played Roxanna Hope Radja, who takes her husband's bisexuality with a blas√© attitude). But Ed and Arnold always find their way back to each other. When the curtain falls you still root for these two crazy kids to make it, and that's a testament to the chemistry of Michael Urie and Ward Horton.

The third act of Torch Song is focused on Arnold's highly charged meeting with his mother (Mercedes Ruehl). Ruehl plays Arnold's mother as one of those women we've all met -- earthy and funny and charming and "liberal", but filled with deep, covert prejudices that bubble to the surface at the most unexpected times. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that the mother-son reunion does not go well. It ends with this unapologetic statement from Arnold:
There's one more thing you better understand. I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, build furniture - I can even pat myself on the back when necessary - all so I don't have to ask anyone for anything. There's nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect and anyone who can't give me those two things has no place in my life.
Is Torch Song perfect? No. It rambles for too long at places. Some parts would have been better left at the shrink's office. Arnold's third act proclamations of deep love for the deceased Alan ring false as we saw in Act 2 that their relationship was nothing more than a youthful infatuation. And the subplot about Arnold trying to adopt a gay teen David (Jack DiFalco) is marred by the fact that DiFalco looks closer to 30 than 16, and that Urie exudes a lot of things, but fatherly concern is not one of them. But the play is funny, it's entertaining, and the one-liners make the time fly by: "It's easier to love someone who's dead. They make so few mistakes."

And it's still surprisingly relevant in 2017. Yes today gay people can get married and have kids together, but gay people finding love, parental acceptance, building a family, those themes are universal and timeless. This talented cast makes Torch Song really sing and thus the plays still packs a punch in the #loveislove era.

Porter and Sands
After the play was over I decided to make my day a Harvey Fierstein double-header as I got a ticket to Kinky Boots. This musical also has Fierstein written all over it: the drag queen lead character, the Oscar Wilde references, the humor and heart that make these LGBT themes appealing to a wide audience (I was sitting next to a Mormon couple from Salt Lake City who had a grand time). Fierstein works endure not because of the drag queen campiness but because of their soft, squishy core -- Hairspray, Torch Song, Kinky Boots, La Cage Aux Follies all feature likable characters that we want to follow.

In the case of Kinky Boots the musical has been running on Broadway for four years but is still fresh. It helps that the original leads (Billy Porter as Lola and Stark Sands as Charlie) are back, and the Don the rough gruff factory worker is still played by original cast member Daniel Sherman. The cast sings Cyndi Lauper's catchy pop score with charm and conviction. Porter in particular has an amazing Broadway belting voice that carried the musical's big anthems like "Sex is in the Heel" and "Hold Me In Your Heart." Sands is the perfect straight man to Porter's over-the-top diva.

The story is sort of cheesy -- Charlie Price's family-owned shoe business is running low on capital until a drag queen named Lola decides to give the company a corporate reorganization -- less practical mens' loafers "to last a lifetime", more drag queen kinky boots. Of course issues of homophobia and parental acceptance have to be worked out before the "everybody let's be fabulous" ending. But it's a really fun evening with some great production numbers ("Everybody Say Yeah" has to be one of the most rousing Act 1 finales) and a nice way to book-end Torch Song.

And so I ended my Very Gay B'way Day this way, as "Lola". Although I could never in a million years be as fabulous as Billy Porter:

Yeah I think I should quit my dayjob and become a drag queen

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