Christopher Street - wildly uneven but the parts that are good are *really* good; messy but a heart as big as the whole Rarig #mnfringe
"Who is this new slice of pie?"
Sometimes less is more. The new Fringe musical Christopher Street has its big heart in the right place. The challenge is that it has an equally big cast and I'm not entirely sure why. There are only a handful of characters who really register on this sprawling epic canvas plucked out of late 1970s gay history. I found myself desperately wanting the focus to be more exclusively on them and saving the production the trouble of so much extra human clutter onstage. This is not to disparage any of the performers in the ensemble. They were all up there trying their very best. But precious few of them had anything to do, which kept repeatedly raising the question for me of "Why are they there?"
"There's bound to be a place I can afford to feel alive."
Seth Gabriel and Martino Mayotte's script seems to want us to focus on three friends bound for the big city of New York. The friends are: Tim (Evan Boyce), a young religious man who wants to escape small town life and the insular world of his father's church to spread the gospel in the Big Apple; Ricky (Tim Mulhair) a fresh-faced naive jock eager to explore his sexuality as a gay man; and James (Riley McNutt), a small-time drug dealer (and token straight boy in the story) who wants to go big-time. Along the way they meet, Tina (Mayotte again), a fabulous gender bending diva, and her trusty companion Louie (Jesse Fankson), a preacher starting his own small church. There's also Tad (Gabriel again), an oversexed young fellow more than happy to help initiate Ricky into the joys and heartaches of gay single life; and Simeon (Carter Roeske) - a guy who roller skates through most of his life, and is more than happy to pick up the pieces of Ricky's broken heart that Tad leaves behind.
"Nobody gets me."
That's the core of the script, and the ensemble (which also includes Mikko Bonilla, Lindsey Brown, Garek Bushnell, Hector Chavarria, Tim Colby, Ted Coonradt, Brityn Creutz, Ali Daniels, Kris Felix, Stephen Horner, Patience Hughes, Megan Kedrowski, Jennifer Kudelka, Shannon McCarville, Loretta Miller, Rachel Neilsen, Jesse Seigal, Tom Swanson, and Angela Wahlberg - yes, 26 people total, according to their cast list on the Fringe website. There was no program but at the time I attended I counted at least two dozen actors on stage for the big closing number and curtain call so that sounds about right).
"You're cute but you've got such a big mouth"
The women don't seem to have any function which moves the plot forward, so I'm not entirely sure why they're present apart from gender diversity. Like much of the rest of the cast, they can't sing loud enough to be heard over the three piece band of keyboard, drums and electric guitar - and this is with or without a microphone. The three buddies hitting the big city can all hold their own vocally, which is, no doubt, along with their acting chops, why they landed their roles.
"The story goes on. It plays over and over again in my head."
The big voice in this musical, however, belongs to Mayotte as Tina. Tina is such a big fabulous creation that she threatens to take over the story (and I'd be willing to argue that she should). Tina's outsized presence as a character is more than matched by Mayotte's singing voice. When Tina opens her mouth for her big number "The Story Goes On," the synapses in my brain started dancing, saying "Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" In addition to being the one big musical theater voice in the ensemble, Tina is also more interesting to watch because we don't know exactly where her story is going. (Unfortunately, it disappears.) Tina's relationship with man of the cloth Louie is fascinating. How did these two get together? What keeps them together? They seem like a great couple. They're just the sort of positive, non-mainstream example of love and commitment that these young men need to see and appreciate. I could spend a whole evening watching Tina and Louie. I like watching a well-told coming out story as much as the next gay guy, but Tina and Louie are something different altogether.
"I'm rolling out of this drama."
Also, this isn't three coming out stories. James is straight, and while it's amusing from a dramaturgical standpoint that here, rather than a token gay couple, we have a token straight couple, because James doesn't reinforce or provide real contrast to either of his two friends' personal journeys, I wonder why he and his girlfriend are in the play. Ricky is our coming out story, and it's very sweet if a bit predictable. Because we like the actors playing Ricky and Tad and Simeon, we're willing to watch their story play out. Perhaps the most intriguing of the three, though, is Tim. At first, given the kind of play this is, the audience could be forgiven for thinking that young Tim's just fooling himself and repressing his true nature. But Tim isn't coming out as gay, at least not yet. He's coming into his own as a preacher's kid getting out from under this father's shadow and figuring out his own calling in the faith. His two best friends are a drug dealer and a gay guy. Tim has made his peace with this, and that by itself is very interesting. Even more interesting to me is that he remains so focused on his mission, and that Tina's beau Louie seems to be taking Tim under his wing and teaching him how to reach out to a much more diverse community than these boys ever saw growing up. I could also watch Tim all evening.
"I guess I missed that day of gay training."
About that gay orgy that's been mentioned, it's more interpretive dance with assless chaps (although I guess that phrase is redundant). I'm not sure what the play is driving at here. For something that unapologetically celebrates the gay identity, the (perhaps unintended) effect of this sequence is to make gay sex seem dirty, dehumanizing and disgusting. This, while the bulk of physical affection between characters that genuinely care for each other elsewhere in the play is relegated to staying unseen off-stage. This may be a moment of epiphany for Tad ("I want sex to mean something, right after this is over"), but since he's a secondary character and not one of our lead threesome, I'm not sure why the focus of the play lands here in this way. If the sequence were a joyous celebration of hedonism and free love, and there was a lot of that going on in the gay community in New York post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS, I might understand it better in the context of the rest of the play. Right now it's more "See, this is everything they warned you about!" (Of course, I may be overly sensitized to this issue because I saw Christopher Street right after The Gay Banditos - now that's a double feature.)
"Say one more prayer for something new."
The things that work in Christopher Street, really work. The rest of the play is just lacking in focus. You don't need to try and tell the whole story of the gay rights movement, or even a whole community in a single decade. The right handful of vibrant characters, given room to breathe, can do that work for you. And I think the right handful is already in there. You just need to clear a little space for them.
3 stars - Recommended