2022 Gay Appreciation Critics’ Choice Award winners
On behalf of my colleague Tony Leggio and myself, I am delighted to announce the winners of this year’s Gay Appreciation Critics’ Choice Awards—
Best Play–For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls (The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans)
Best Musical–Head Over Heels (Loyola University’s Department of Theatre Arts and Dance)
Best Original Show–Dear Mr. Williams by Bryan Batt (Le Petit Theatre)
Sustained Excellence in Theater Award–Jeffery Roberson/Varla Jean Merman
In lieu of a plaque, each of our winners will receive a small bar tab for Betty’s Bar & Bistro, which is probably for the best as, this year, the supplier of plaques for the GAAs sent, by mistake, ones intended for a high school swim team in Florida (which was, fortunately, overcome with a little cutting & pasting). Congratulations to all!
Pantomime at Loyola’s Marquette Hall through September 25
After some online presentations during the pandemic shutdown, it is a pleasure to welcome Crescent City Stage, New Orleans’ newest theater company, to the realm of live performances.
Its debut is occasioned by a production of Pantomime, a two-hander by Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott, in which Harry Trewe, an English former song-and-dance man now running a guesthouse on the Caribbean island of Tobago, hopes to get his servant, Jackson Phillip, to appear in a panto version of “Robinson Crusoe” as entertainment for the hotel guests.
While this is an intriguing set-up under any circumstances (I wonder how Harold Pinter would’ve handled it), with Trewe being white and Phillip Black, Pantomime plays out on both a human and allegorical level.
Pantomime starts somewhat lightheartedly as Walcott kicks things off with rather sitcom-y banter and an engaging camaraderie between his two protagonists despite their employer/employee relationship.
Trewe, a “stubborn man”, then gets the idea to do a race-reversed version of Daniel Defoe’s tale and strips down to his shorts to portray Crusoe’s Man Friday. If this leads to a somewhat dated display of “gay panic” on Phillip’s part (Pantomime was written in 1978 and premiered in New York in 1986) followed by Trewe’s assurance that he has nothing to worry about, it may just be Walcott guaranteeing us that he’s not going in that direction. At all.
Trewe then plays on Phillip’s ego in order to get him to participate in the panto (the “pantomime’ of the title, an archetypal form of British theater, typically seen during the Holidays; it’s little known in America). After Phillip eventually acquiesces to do so, however, Trewe decides to call it off when Phillip tries to elevate the presentation to “art”instead of just “a little entertainment”.
I don’t want to give too much away, but, as Trewe attempts to close the Pandora’s box he’s opened, Phillip reacts angrily, explaining it as typical of colonizers who come in, turn life topsy-turvy, and then walk away.
And there’s the rub. Pantomime is an interesting, still all-too-topical play, but Walcott tends to spell things out for his audience. One feels Walcott’s authorial hand making points rather than them rising organically from the characters and plot. I almost wish Pantomime was a true panto that aimed at its targets with satire as Peter Nichols did in Poppy, a panto-styled musical about the Opium Wars that lampooned the British, the Chinese, and war in general.
Still, until the overdone last section, when Walcott belatedly brings in aspects of Trewe’s personal life, Pantomime offers an engaging play of ideas fueled by passions and tempers, Trewe’s fire contrasting with Phillip’s steel.
John “Ray” Proctor has directed Pantomime fluidly and with a momentum that doesn’t allow one to dwell on its shortcomings while watching the play. He achieves his best moments with this knotty script when he varies the pace, e.g., when things slow down and turn almost supernatural as Phillip repetitively and hauntingly intones words–”boss, bwana, effendi, buckra, sahib”–that people of color in colonized societies would use to address whites.
As Trewe, Michael A. Newcomer, a co-founder of Crescent City Stage, is appropriately “actorly”. He convinces us that Trewe is liberal and means well, but reveals the man’s temper when he doesn’t get his way, as well as his underlying racism that occasionally pokes out from beneath his surface.
Despite Newcomer’s best efforts, however, Trewe manifests as a bit of a cliche, the “fairly decent yet imperial and condescending Englishman”. With all due respect to Newcomer, I would’ve loved to have seen how Laurence Olivier (of The Entertainer era) or Anthony Hopkins or Richard Burton or Albert Finney or Peter O’Toole would’ve played the role.
(After I googled and Wiki’ed the play, I was actually flabbergasted to find no indication that it had ever had a major West End production, merely a fringe London one in 1979 and a brief run in Essex in 2012 directed by Walcott himself. I would’ve thought this script would’ve been catnip to two marquee name actors.)
Michael C. Forest, who made a memorable stage debut in 2019’s A Raisin in the Sun, gets a wider personality range to inhabit as Phillip, in part because Walcott gives him an assortment of ways to react to Trewe’s entreaties. Forest shows that Phillip, a native Trinidadian who has also been to New York City and Mobile, may be a bit of a prude, but he also conveys the man’s potential for violence as well as his pride and creativity. In his silent moments when he expressively reacts to Trewe, Forest adds extra layers to Phillip, augmenting Walcott’s words.
With Pantomime, a worthy play and even worthier production, Crescent City Stage marks an auspicious start to what I hope will be a long run here. I look forward to its future productions.
(For tickets and more information, go to https://www.crescentcitystage.com/)
Clothes for a Summer Hotel at Loyola’s Lower Depths Theatre through September 24
On March 26, 1980, Clothes for a Summer Hotel by Tennessee Williams opened on Broadway; it was also the playwright’s 69th birthday. By the next day, the reviews had come out. There was not much to celebrate.
Less than two weeks later, after only 15 performances, Clothes closed, the last original play of Williams to open on Broadway. It was a colossal failure, perhaps not as infamous as such other ‘80s flops as Carrie or Moose Murders, but sadder and more tragic because of the people involved (Geraldine Page, José Quintero as well as Williams) and the high pre-opening expectations.
Not surprisingly, it has never, to the best of my knowledge, been done in New Orleans.
The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans is giving it a compelling revival in Loyola’s black box theater. It’s not top drawer Williams, but, like Pantomime, also on Loyola’s campus, makes for a worthy evening of theater.
Billed as both “A Ghost Play” and a “memory play”, Clothes for a Summer Hotel imagines a meeting of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, several years after his death when she was confined to an asylum near Asheville, North Carolina.
She’s vivacious, still an avatar of the Jazz Age. He’s wan and low-key, yet comes off as a snob. They bicker over their relationship. And bicker over their various affairs. And bicker some more.
Zelda’s French boy toy materializes. They have a fling. Ernest Hemingway puts in an appearance. He muses out loud if F. Scott might be gay. Some homoeroticism rumbles between them. Apparently, such an interaction did occur, but absent of such knowledge (thanks Wiki), one might ponder if Williams was putting on stage some sort of gay wet dream, albeit a very literary one.
Williams gives us a fully-realized portrait of a dysfunctional relationship as well as one of a man as an over-the-hill artist, perhaps subconsciously identifying with F. Scott.
Through the lens of the Fitzgeralds, delusions and disenchantment and a sense of loss emerge, themes found throughout Williams’ canon.
There is some beautiful writing, but it wanders and fails to coalesce and we wish for a little more illumination of the two souls at the center of the play.
There is also some writing that comes off as almost a parody of Williams from his golden years.
What there isn’t is a linear, or even non-linear, plot. Williams alluded to this in Michiko Kakutani’s incisive post mortem that ran in The New York Times in June 1980 –
“Vacillating between self-abasement and defensive pride, Mr. Williams also conceded that he had probably overestimated the attention span of an audience by writing a play without the support of a plot.”
Perhaps. But I think an audience might still have paid attention if the writing had, through a concatenation of telling details, cohered into some sort of narrative. In Clothes, after a while, it seems like Williams is merely spinning his wheels; as Hemingway and Mrs. Patrick Campbell (google if you don’t recognize her name) join the proceedings and reference is made to Joseph Conrad, 42 years after Clothes’ premiere, much of it feels, except perhaps to the literary mavens among us, very distant.
That hasn’t stopped Director Augustin J Correro from putting on a crackerjack production.
We enter to find Caige Hirsch’s moody, gothic set–a swivel chair sits on a clock face that has been painted on the floor; a simple bench is nearby; behind them, a large imposing metal gate looms, flanked by gray brick columns.
Diane K. Baas’ atmospheric lighting bathes the stage in a complex assortment of fiery oranges (Zelda would perish in a 1948 fire at the asylum) and hellish reds. Nick Shackleford provides another of his evocative sound designs. Michael Quintana’s choreography adds a nice, sensuous touch.
Working with these designers, Correro sustains a hallucinatory feel throughout the play’s 90 minutes adding slow motion, stylized movements and dreamy music. Some moments verge on camp as when black-robed figures sporting white handkerchief-covered faces appear (costumes are by Baylee Robertson), but Correro aptly keeps the production immersed in its dream-like world.
Interestingly, Correro has compressed the original 16-person cast down to five actors. Given this and the production’s fleetness, unlike Williams’ Streetcar or Menagerie, I queried Correro as to whether he had made any significant cuts. He responded that they had only trimmed “about 8 lines”. I can’t help but speculate how things might’ve turned out if the Broadway version had opted for this “less is more” approach.
As Zelda, Lauren Wells makes an impressive New Orleans stage debut. Playing the “internationally celebrated beauty” from Montgomery, Alabama, Wells is effortlessly jaunty, bubbly, and sexy. When her Zelda stingingly says to F. Scott about their relationship “What was important to you was to observe and devour”, Wells admixes, as she does throughout her entire performance, prickliness leavened with sadness, strength dotted with nervousness, and a torturous self-awareness.
In some ways, Matthew Boese has the harder task as F. Scott. Clothes places him in his later, sober years, so we don’t get the theatricality of an alcoholic. Boese is suitably understated and appropriately so; I do wonder, though, if there might be other interpretations.
One only wishes that Wells and Boese, led by Correro, had varied the pacing a bit more; too much of the time the dialog comes out in a rush. Williams’ filigreed lines should encourage actors to dig in, and with only the slightest modifications to overall tempi, elucidate all the nuances of the words.
In multiple roles, Benjamin Dougherty, whose work I’ve enjoyed as part of his North Shore-based company RoBenHood Productions, admirably avoids both “French lover” cliches as Zelda’s beau and hyper-macho ones as Hemingway. Kyle Daigrepont and Mary Langley, each in an assortment of roles, are equally fine as well.
Clothes for a Summer Hotel may not be an absolute lost gem, yet anyone who cares about Tennessee Williams, or theater in general for that matter, should take advantage of this rare opportunity and see it while you have a chance. The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company is to be commended for presenting this overlooked, tho worthy, work.
One final note. In the Kakutani article, Williams is quoted as saying:
I’ve worked in the theater because it’s been my life, but this last experience has made me realize that it’s just a marketplace where middle aged men get their jollies looking at Ann Miller. People go for the wrong reasons now – for escape, for entertainment. The whole New York scene has changed enormously. I think Albee put it very well, ‘Broadway has become like the strip of Vegas.’ I feel old, but I don’t feel as old as Broadway – Broadway has become senile, not I.
Twenty-two years later, Edward Albee won his second Tony Award for The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? It is a tale of a married, middle-aged architect who falls in love with a goat. Albee was 74 years young.
(For more information, go to https://www.twtheatrenola.com/)
Sweet Potato Queens at JPAS’ Teatro Wego! through October 2
Maybe it’s my NYC roots, but more often than not, Southern-based shows of a certain yee-haw type, even big successes, critically and/or commercially, leave me cold–from off-Broadway’s Pump Boys and Dinettes, Oil City Symphony, and Steel Magnolias, to more mainstream hits like Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Designing Women. The humor and ethos that fuel them just ain’t in my DNA.
Add to this list Sweet Potato Queens, the Musical based on the “best-selling works” of Jill Conner Browne which Jefferson Performing Arts Society is presenting in its West Bank home, Teatro Wego!
Browne’s memoir detailed her life in early 1980s Jackson, Mississippi, and how she found new meaning by launching the “Sweet Potato Queens” (SPQ), a group of women who marched in Jackson’s St. Patrick’s Day parade and lived life on their own terms. The book’s publication went on to inspire “6,400 SPQ groups in 37 countries around the world” and a string of successful SPQ books with titles like Fat is the New 30 and The Sweet Potato Queens’ Field Guide to Men.
Fine and fair enough.
Then, a few years ago, 1970s singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester, Tony winner Rupert (The Mystery of Edwin Drood,) Holmes, and Nashville songwriter Sharon Vaughn turned it into a musical. It opened in Houston in 2016. It got dreadful reviews. From what I can tell, the version running in Westwego is an improvement. That’s not saying very much.
Holmes’ book jumps between “The Present” and a dozen years earlier during which time we see how Jill has quit her desk job at Sears to do something fulfilling with her life (like writing) while living with her folks in a trailer with her ne’er-do-well husband and newborn child.
(Apparently, this hardscrabble scenario is a bit of a stretch. According to a 2019 article in Mississippi Today, “Jill’s family is horrified they set her in a trailer park, but as Rupert said, ‘There’s nothing interesting about average to riches.’”)
Jill befriends three women named Tammy (as tho that’s the only woman’s name in Jackson; one even comments about Jill, “That’s a funny name”. Yeah, Holmes’ writing is on that level), one who has a problem with food, one who has a problem with sex, and one who has a problem with her abusive husband. They eventually add a gay guy, George (surprisingly, not Tommy), who works in a Chinese restaurant, to their li’l troop.
Then they dress up in green and pink sequined outfits, put on big red wigs & tiaras, and join that parade. These are the outfits we see them in in “The Present” as they sing, endlessly, songs about how fabulous they are or how useless men are.
This would all be kinda sorta cutting edge in 1985. Now, it seems like a Lifetime movie-of-the -week from about 30 years ago as cliches are heaped on cliches; the gay character, in particular, seems to have borrowed (stolen?) some of the same DNA from La Cage aux Folles’ Albin.
In Holmes’ painfully amateurish book, scenes tend to trail off rather than end; the SPQs refer to themselves as “the only female drag queens”, a line Becky Allen was using 35 years ago; and a cringey scene in that Chinese restaurant makes these characters out to be so unsophisticated that one misreads “chow mein” for “Chow me in”. Compared to SPQ, Mama’s Family seems like Shakespeare.
As with other musicals, a lousy book might’ve been overlooked if the score was at all memorable. Manchester, however, has supplied nearly 20 melodies, all of which go in one ear and immediately out the other. One song, That One Kiss, isn’t half bad but it belongs in Act One; placed in Act Two, it slows things down when you’re hoping they’ll end soon.
Only Vaughn’s lyrics demonstrate any degree of professionalism, but they often seem too clever for characters who, well, see the above “chow me in” joke.
Putting everything else aside, while I’m all for women’s empowerment and have no doubt there’re lots of second-rate men in Mississippi, I found the SPQ philosophy that promotes “the full flowering of self-indulgence and narcissism”, even if meant to be tongue-in-cheek, somewhat noxious. Rather than just exploit men, why not encourage women to get an education, volunteer for worthy causes, start a business, etc. etc.
On the plus side, Sweet Potato Queens, the Musical could hardly ask for a better production than it’s getting in Westwego.
Director Kiane D. Davis, who, earlier this year, as the fiery Dragon, was a highlight of JPAS’ Shrek, does extremely well with this third rate material. She keeps the production moving so you don’t have too much time to cringe and has her cast invest honest emotions in these banal characters. I hope she’ll soon be directing other, more interesting and challenging scripts.
Krystal Gem, making her JPAS debut, does a fabulous job as Jill. Sassy and ebullient in her SPQ numbers, thoughtful and empathetic in the scenes of Jill’s “real life”, I kept thinking that this appealing actress deserves so much better than this material.
The rest of the cast (Lalanya Gunn, Rachel Knaps, Melissa McKenzie, Tom Vaughn, Shelby Faget Wynne, Joey Dowdall) all acquit themselves well, with Scott Sauber doing a great job as he brings his innate decency to make Jill’s loathsome, two-timing husband as palatable as possible.
A few final thoughts.
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a Black actress playing the white Jill Conner Browne (I might not have known that but she was sitting right across the aisle from me), it might not have been a bad idea to adjust a lyric in one of the songs (We Had Some Good Times) in which her husband sings to her about giving her “watermelon in the summertime”. This cringey racist trope should have been avoided at all costs.
If you think I’m being harsh on Sweet Potato Queens, let me report that the night I saw it, the theater was full with many dressed in boas and tiaras who had clearly come wanting to have a good time. At the end, while there was certainly applause, only about 20% of the audience gave it the now obligatory standing ovation. Had SPQ delivered the goods, I’m sure it would’ve been 100%.
And in one way, Sweet Potato Queens may have been surprisingly ahead of its time. When the SPQs sing that men should support them, it made me think of a 2021 article in The New York Times about a financial dominatrix (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/10/style/findom-kink.html) Maybe, instead of dressing up in sequins and boas, SPQs should be wearing leather and stilettoes.
(For tickets and more information, go to https://www.jpas.org/performance/sweet-potato-queens/)