A multitude of variety shows, from Ziegfeld's epics of spangled female pulchritude to Leonard Stillman and Ben Bagley's intimate, sophisticated showcases, once dotted the Great White Way. These shows, known as follies and revues, weren't saddled with the pretense of telling a story. Instead, they centered around topical themes, lavish spectacle, and whimsical comedy skits. For this, they recruited from the top ranks of vaudeville, nightclubs, and theater. In one spectacular evening, for example, theatergoers could enjoy Fred and Adele Astaire's fancy footwork, Will Rogers's homespun comedy, and (the raison d'être of the occasion) a platoon of curvaceous cuties descending a staircase.
Skip forward to 1995. A mad entertainer/costume designer named Howard Crabtree, who had a penchant for whipping up costumes with the intricacy of the Eiffel Tower and the comic grotesqueries of Sir John Tenniel's "Alice" illustrations, devised a merry subversion to reanimate a dormant species.
Crabtree and co-writer Mark Waldrop painted pink a sacred shrine to heterosexual titillation where generations of wolfish businessmen once gathered to ogle bejeweled flesh-and-blood pinups and guffaw at testosterone he-man humor. These gay writers reformatted the follies for the palates of those who would have been mocked as "fairies" in the heyday of the Broadway revue.
Waldrop and composer Dick Gallagher have for two Crabtree shows adroitly created scores that draw from the revues of Noël Coward and many other luminaries, imbuing them with a lavender tinge. First came Whoop-Dee-Doo! -- a cornucopia of exotic fruits, including Howard Crabtree himself. The show's highlight was a sketch concerning a group of South Seas natives who uncover a chest of original Broadway cast albums that turn them into show-tune queens, worshipers of the Judy goddess.
After this first revue, Crabtree succumbed to AIDS. Yet before he died, he managed to create a sequel, When Pigs Fly. Here, the fabulous plumage that once decorated the chicks has been bequeathed to the roosters. Sailor boys, who used to sing ukulele odes to their sweet Leilanis, now sing them to Jims and Johnnies. The whole point of the show is to take yesterday's heterosexual conventions and turn them on their ear. Portly chorus boys perform a soft-shoe specialty titled "Light in the Loafers," in which they exult in their feyness. At the center of it all is Crabtree's alter ego, once the kind of driven song-and-dance man personified by Mickey Rooney, hoofing his way into the Big Time to win the love of Judy Garland. Losing interest in chasing the skirts, he now just wants to wear them.
Crabtree, portrayed by Dean Holtz, bears an uncanny resemblance to the sailor boy on the Cracker Jack box. He plays with such concentrated adorableness, he makes your average teddy bear seem like a grizzly in comparison. His fictionalized Howard is driven by two furies: a witchlike guidance counselor, who assures him his chances of being a showbiz success are about as likely as those eponymous pigs taking flight, and a monster boyfriend, who scolds like a fishwife. These ogres spur our hero on to Rube Goldberg ingenuity, resulting in 20 musical odes to gay perversity -- all perfect pansy doppelgängers to the numbers that sent our revue-going forebears into theatrical ecstasy.
There is the torch song, here dedicated to such notorious homophobes as Newt Gingrich and Strom Thurmond. Then there's that archetypal production number, with ladies in waiting proving their vanity by wearing vanity tables. A spoof on the musical monstrosities of dinner theater, "The Melody Barn" has a road-company Ethel Merman as mistress of ceremonies.
Producing such an effortless peacock of a show is a daunting task. Six costume designers used their 60 industrious digits to concoct what goes way beyond mere costumes to works of imagination, evoking the follies we see both on stage and in our wilder dreams. These range from buxom mermaids to the "Dream Curley" from Oklahoma!
Director Robert Gibb, himself an expert song-and-dance man with great cheekbones, a few years back skillfully directed the harrowing gay holocaust play Bent in the same theater. Here, he has rendered a confection colorful and delicious, bringing to mind a rainbow popsicle. Aided by choreographer Laura Workman, he has straddled the delicate line between deliberate awfulness and wry spoofing.
Gibb has recruited a cast that shimmers in unison: the cherubic Holtz, ardent Tom Castro, sinewy Daniel Gibson, rib-tickling Nickolas L. Vannello, and -- from the New York production -- divine John Wasiniak.
If there is any justice, When Pigs Fly should soar for years.
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