By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Count on these things in most every Uptown Players production: cute guys kissing and at least one young man stripping down to scanty man-panties. There you have Uptown's latest show, bare, a pop opera/peepshow about hot Catholic schoolboys in lust with each other.
It's a big, gay high school musical really, with interminable songs about the "Best Kept Secret" and how to "Touch My Soul" (among other parts). Senior class roommates Jason (Joshua Doss) and Peter (Sean Patrick Henry) share the love that dare not speak its name—at least not in a Catholic boarding school. Jason also dabbles with ladies on the side, so when he accidentally knocks up girlfriend Ivy (Kayla Carlyle, a ringer for pre-crazy Britney Spears), he has reasons to freak.
There are 19 numbers packed into the first overlong act of bare and 17 in the second. That's a lot of caterwaulin'. In comparison, They're Playing Our Song at Lyric Stage (reviewed a few paragraphs from now) boasts a total of nine tunes, not counting a few reprises. When you leave Lyric, you might even be humming a few bars of the bouncy Marvin Hamlisch music. From bare's busy score by Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere Jr., not one song is as memorable as the leading men's abs.
That adds up to a production that's all flash and little substance. Director Cheryl Denson and choreographer Vicki Squires keep the 16-member ensemble whirling all over the small stage at the KD Studio Theatre, but the constant motion doesn't completely camouflage the leaps of logic in Intrabartolo and Hartmere's sliver of a book. Nobody talks, everybody sings in this thing, even in the overwrought confessional scenes with the priest (Jeff Kinman) and in the boys' tearful phone calls to Mom (Sara Shelby-Martin).
There is such weeping and wailing and gnashing of perfectly straight white teeth in bare. The gorgeous cast never gets a gleaming hair out of place as they switch from silly love songs to angry ballads with barely a breath between. They also rock, rap, roll into some R&B and harmonize in that wispy New Age woo-woo heard so often coming out of speakers in nail polish parlors. Somewhere in the midst of it all, Jason has a pot-stoked vision of a Black Madonna (the reliably full-voiced Natalie King), and they blast some gospel in the loud and completely idiotic "God Don't Make No Trash."
Wedged into the basic storyline, every other scene has the kids at St. Rita Moreno Academy, or whatever the school is called, rehearsing a musical version of Romeo and Juliet. So besides the nonstop lyrics about gay teen romance and unwed knock-uppedness, we get Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers sung to a heavy backbeat.
The ensemble at Uptown is almost too talented for this icky material. This playhouse plays up to the near and queer Oak Lawn crowd and too often lately has staged shows focusing on gay content and lacking in literature. An Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward play once in a while wouldn't hurt. Compared to bare, the works of Harvey Fierstein and Terrence McNally are classics.
One performance worth singling out in bare is Liz Woodcock as Jason's bumptious sister, Nadia. Hair streaked candy pink, Woodcock screws her pretty face into a persimmon pout and sings her heart to shreds as the chubby outsider who doesn't fit in with the straights, gays or drama geeks. The best song of the bunch, a bitter anti-love ballad, lets her sing, "Spring, a time for love, a time for two/A time when lovers start to coo/Spring can lick me." If only the whole show had been about her.
What carried They're Playing Our Song to Broadway hit status 30 years ago was the high-energy romping of comedian Robert Klein, who earned a Tony nomination playing Vernon Gersch, the neurotic and not completely fictional main character based on composer Marvin Hamlisch. Klein's goofy doo-wop singing style suited the score by Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, and he slickly put over the hacky jokes in the book by Neil Simon.
Without a comic talent as large as Klein in the leading role, it's now clear that They're Playing Our Song is not a timeless piece of American musical theater. Its time probably was up the moment the curtain rang down on Klein's final performance.
There's a revival now of Song at Irving's Lyric Stage, which specializes in musicals that haven't been done in a while. On the wide stage at the Dupree Theater at the Irving Arts Center, the eight-person show—basically two characters and their separate trios of musical muses—seems lost and swallowed up in darkness.
As Vernon, Dallas musical theater actor Paul Taylor has some nice moments, just not enough of them to matter. And he's stymied by the miscasting of Stacia Goad-Malone as Sonia Walsk, Vernon's quirky writing partner/girlfriend. Her voice blends fine with Taylor's, but their romantic chemistry is awkward and her comic shtick is listless. There's just no click with this chick.
It's a love-her, love-her-not story in Song. Vernon hates Sonia for the first 15 minutes, then abruptly goes crazy for her for no reason except the show needs him to. They try writing together and sleeping together, but neither collaboration goes well. They break up, and he finds himself plunking out notes on a toy piano and singing a lilting lament, "Fill in the Words," about getting his heart broken.
The music's actually rather sweet in They're Playing Our Song. But don't expect a soaring whizbang of an ending. This is one of the few Broadway musicals to end on a talking scene instead of a rousing 11 o'clock number. Just blah, blah, blah, buh-bye.
Theaters keep doing Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, and I keep on hating it. It's a stupid play about three Southern sisters who gossip, gab, eat, scream and cry around the kitchen table for three hours. Every time another one blathers on about Ol' Granddaddy, I want to hurl something heavy.
The production at Theatre Three almost convinces me that this play isn't just Arsenic and Old Lace in Mississippi. The cast is killer: Renee Krapff as Lenny, the old-maid sister who has half-lost her mind from loneliness; Carrie Slaughter as Babe, the little sis who's just shot her rich husband because "I didn't like his looks"; Trisha Miller Smith as Meg, the slutty sibling fresh off the bus from Los Angeles, where her singing career hasn't exactly panned out; Morgana Shaw as cousin-next-door Chick, a meddling yenta with a Dixie drawl; Gary Floyd as Doc, the long-lost boyfriend Meg hooks up with for old times' sake; and Kevin Moore as Babe's ambitious defense lawyer, Barnett.
Director Terry Dobson has his actors wring every laugh and tear there is from the script, and they do it with a combination of genuine pathos and pure hokum. Why theaters love this piece-of-junk play is a mystery, but if it were always done as well as Theatre Three's doing it, I'd hate it a whole lot less.