To say Uptown Players has gone all out in their current production of The Pet Shop Boys musical, Closer to Heaven (American premiere) would be a glaring understatement. Set in a gay nightclub, with raucous, raunchy, dazzling and dangerous choreography by John De Los Santos, Closer to Heaven takes us deep into gay subculture, painting it with a brush that that is both tawdry and glamorous. It demonstrates the pain and emotional devastation of living in a world where you are marginalized, where hedonism and rough sex is the only respite, where the only place you can truly be yourself is a dive where patrons tacitly agree to a de facto pact of secrecy. Closer to Heaven certainly breaks all kinds of new ground for Dallas (if not the Bible Belt) but more importantly, shows us the humanity and torment of people living a stigmatized existence. The characters in Closer to Heaven have done their best to navigate a culture that has no use for them, to create a haven in the midst of overwhelming persecution and contempt.
Vic Christian is the owner of “the club” and like many of its inhabitants, has a predilection for substance abuse. His grown daughter, Shell, is coming to meet him for the first time, since he left her and mother, when she was still an infant. When Vic discovered he was gay, he decided it was in everyone’s best interest to begin again elsewhere. Needless to say, Shell is anxious about her first meeting with the father she never knew. Straight Dave is a bartender at the club who wants to move up to the position of dancer, as he realizes his ambitions of notoriety and wealth. Mile End Lee is a drug dealer with his own agenda and secret yearnings.
Bob Saunders is a wealthy (closeted?) music producer who revels in his own cynical, exploitative lifestyle. Flynn is Saunders’ queeny, venomous assistant, who loves his own barbs and quips better than anyone else. Billie Trix is the choreographer at the nameless queer hotspot and brings to mind a slightly more energetic and verbal Marlene Dietrich, decked out mostly in bondage garb, and blessed with the kind of infinitely weary wisdom only decades of dissolution and promiscuity can provide. Billie has seen and done it all, unless she was sleeping in that day.
Such are the key players in Closer to Heaven, a musical (book by Jonathan Harvey, songs by Pet Shop Boys) that begs comparison to Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, where the naïve Cliff witnesses the crumbling of Berlin’s soul from the inside out. While Sally Bowle’s mindless, recreational lifestyle is a prelude to the collapse of civilization, in Closer to Heaven, we see same-gender sexual orientation reduced to its most meager definition. The performers of the Kit Kat Club engage in polymorphous perversity, but the talent in Closer to Heaven has simply been relegated to the margins. While Straight Dave isn’t nearly as green as Cliff’s ingénue in Cabaret, he’s more invested in the transgressive world of this gay entertainment club than he realizes.
If The Pet Shop Boys score isn’t quite as varied as Kander and Ebb, it certainly trumps them in audacity and graphic content. Often melodiousness disguises some of the more unsettling themes that seem appropriate to a time when spiritual and emotional cannibalism set the tone for survival. Uptown has courageously chosen a show that transcends edginess or spectacle, though it has these qualities, and glories in a delicious, predatory sensuality. Closer to Heaven has numerous surprises and incisive, overwhelming, painfully genuine moments. It doesn’t take refuge in pandering to expectations or manufactured homilies. Director Bruce Coleman has taken a story submerged in bestiality and squalor and uncovered a chalice brimming with yearning, intensity, sorrow and unvarnished care. It is one of most brilliant, unforgettable experiences I’ve had in the theatre in a very long time.
Morgana Shaw is a joy and delight as Billie, an inveterate adventurer of the senses who’s discovered at the end of the day, you can’t take any of it too seriously. Shaw’s marvelously husky voice, mixed with that heavy German accent, is hilarious and endearing. You can’t help but wonder how Billie’s made it this far without surrendering to despair. Coy Covington brings his exquisite verve to the treacherous Bob Saunders. When his wry musical number Call Me Old Fashioned culminates with 4 pretty boys on leashes, you realize there are very few who could pull this kind of outrageness off with a straight face. Somehow Covington manages to be erudite and spivvy at the same time, and you just can’t help but shake your head in amazement.
Both Lee Jamison Wadley (as Shell Christian) and Evan Fuller (as Straight Dave) have the difficult task of playing heterosexual interlopers in a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. They must be tough without the veneer of cynicism so many use as armor. Wadley’s intuitive grace and sincerity carry her impressively, she’s radiant and formidable, walking a tightrope between speciousness and harshness, but still charismatic. Fuller is quite fetching and dashing, managing heroism without channeling the last boy scout. It’s a daunting mountain to cross, because the venue of Closer to Heaven is so jaundiced, anyone who isn’t a schmuck is in danger of seeming like a candy-ass.
Jason C. Kane as Shell’s dad, Vic, is grand as a working class, urban, gay man in middle age, shouldering so much of life’s disappointments and aches, with resignation and dogged determination. Kane’s Victor Christian is gruff and awkward and surly and clueless, and heartbreaking and spot-on. In what may be Closer to Heaven’s most profoundly touching moments, Clayton Younkin as (Mile End) Lee is clearly at the top of his game. Younkin must be reaching deeply and vigilantly into his psyche to evince this level of poignancy and truth. It’s unsettling and implacable.
The bleak, fabulously ravished set for Closer to Heaven, designed by Andy Redmon, is almost a presence unto itself. With its grimy gent’s toilet, chain link fences, St. Andrew’s Cross and seedy after-hours fringe club mien, it’s nearly frightening enough to simply imagine what will transpire in such a setting. Redmon’s creation is part dungeon, part grotto, part arena and part purgatory.
Special note must be taken of Closer to Heaven’s ensemble dancers, who, thanks to John de los Santos’ ingenious, earthy, spell-binding choreography, conspire in a tangle of infernal, salacious, tortured, precise and poised post-Gen-X devil dolls, to imbue the show with ravenous, rapacious carnality.
Uptown Players proudly presents the U.S. Premiere of Closer to Heaven, book by Jonathan Harvey and music by The Pet Shop Boys (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe). Playing October 1st-24th, 2010. Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Boulevard (entrance off Blackburn) Dallas, Texas 75219. 214-219-2718. www.uptownplayers.org
Starring : Mikey Abrams, Michael Albee, Wes Cantrell, Andrew Chard, Coy Covington, Stephanie Felton, Evan Fuller, Maija Johnson, Jason C Kane *, Drew Kelly, Summer Kenny, Kelly McCain, Chris Reynolds, Morgana Shaw*, Alexandra Valle, Jason Vilarreal, Lee Jamison-Wadley, Jeff Walters and Clayton Younkin