We’re lucky to be living where we do. Opportunities abound to see exciting new work, shows in development and emerging major talent.
All three fortunes converge in Rep Stage’s stirring, sequined world premiere musical, Dorian’s Closet, which delves into the marginalized lives of drag queens in ‘80s and ‘90s New York with substance and flamboyance.
It’s a thrilling experience. You feel like you’re watching the start of something big.
In case you haven’t seen the superb documentary on the drag queen and Harlem drag ball scene, Paris is Burning, or know about the late Dorian Corey (an electrifying Stephen Scott Wormley), Dorian’s Closet centers on the drop-dead gorgeous and talented man who was known as much for his generosity and care of the children in his “house” (a family of transsexuals or drag queens competing in balls) as for his glitz.
Dorian (who died of AIDS-related causes in 1993) was way out there when performing at the nasty Times Square nightclub Sally’s for paying male customers or voguing at a ball, but like so many men like her, she had her secrets. Pain, discrimination, abandonment by family and lovers among them.
And then there’s the matter of a mummified man’s body stuffed in a garment bag in her closet.
Director Joseph W. Ritsch expertly balances the drama and the drama queens in a production that has you at once gasping at the clothes and wigs (there is probably not a sparkle or frill left in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, thanks to costume designer Sarah Cubbage), the poise and grace—and great pipes—of the high-heeled, all-male cast, and the racial and sexual prejudices these men endure on a day-to-day basis once the stage lights go dim.
Onstage and on the drag ball runway, they are the Dreamgirls, Sally Bowles, Le Cagettes and 1980s supermodels all rolled into one. Although as much as they work it for the audience, they are worked over by their often violent reality.
At one point, Dorian, the show’s star, asks one of his fellow drag queens, the drolly pragmatic Pepper Labeija (Dwayne Washington, channeling Lena Horne in his classic beauty and moments of 1940s’s dame-like hardness) “Do you think God will punish us for our sins?”
To which Pepper replies “Honey, we’re black and gay. Don’t you think we’ve suffered enough?”
That is one of many memorable cutting zingers in Richard Mailman’s shade-throwing book and lyrics, which are set to an imminently hummable score by Ryan Haase that combines R&B, club music, pop and traditional show tunes like ballads and cakewalks.
There’re even a couple of showstoppers, among them the Act One heart-piercer, “I Shot an Arrow,” shot through with rich emotion and wistfulness as Wormley’s exquisite phrasing frames this quiet ballad about dashed aspirations.
closes May 14, 2017
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“I’m Working Here,” “All You Need is the Drag” and “Famous” recall “Hey Big Spender” and other tough but vulnerable numbers from Sweet Charity as Dorian and “the girls” vamp and flirt for attention (and money), showing the tawdry and exploitative aspects of their plight.
Part musical, part whodunit and part drag revue, Dorian’s Closet is neatly tucked into a dandy bandbox of a set by Daniel Ettinger, who gives us the green glittery curtain the show cries out for, along with side panels made up of closet doors painted in punchy hues.
The panels are put to joyful use in “Pay the Tab,” as the cast pops open the candy-colored doors like some kind of gay version of “Laugh In” as they sing merrily and jadedly about how to treat a working girl right.
Even though Wormley’s performance as the charismatic Dorian is the stuff legends are made on, the musical is an ensemble effort and everyone is legendary in their own right. James Scott Frisby wins you over portraying the winsome kindness of Jesse Torres, a Latino queen who trades in his Richard Simmons-inspired overalls and shorty-shorts to become his own kind of dream girl at the drag balls (needless to say, his transformation is stunning).
Dwayne Washington’s swagger and knack for salty talk give Pepper the street-style and sass that belie her very well-protected good heart. Richard Westerkamp brings show-biz brio and sweet comedic talents to the role of plus-sized Monica Mugler. Ian Anthony Coleman’s severe and slinky portrayal of Amazing Grace will put you in mind of Grace Jones in her glory days.
As the fragile Angel Romano, Tiziano D’Affuso brings out the maternal instinct in everyone as she exposes herself to constant danger while pursuing her dream of true love, expressed in the endless need of the songs “Mother” and “I Need You.”
The show isn’t perfect—it could be trimmed a bit, especially in the alike-sounding soulful numbers that come one after another in the second act.
That’s just tweaking and doesn’t detract from the show’s shimmering promise and its message that all people deserve respect, attention and to be remembered.
Dorian’s Closet: A New Musical . Book and lyrics by Richard Mailman . Music by Ryan Haase . Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch . Featuring: Stephen Scott Wormley, James Thomas Frisby, Dwayne Washington, Richard Westerkamp, Ian Anthony Coleman. Keith Richards, Tiziano D’Affuso, Jay Adriel. Musical Director: Stacey Antoine. Choreography: Rachel Dolan. Scenic Design: Daniel Ettinger. Costume Design: Sarah Cubbage. Light Design: Joseph Walls. Sound Design: Mark Smedley. Dramaturg: Lisa Wilde. Production Stage Manager: Julie DeBakey Smith.
Musicians: Stacey Antoine (keyboard 1), William Curtis Scaletta (keyboard 2), percussion (Joseph Pipkin), Chanel Whitehead (cello), Raphael Erfe (violin).
Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.