Lavender night

Mad About the Boy -- Gay Songs from the 1920s to the Present

Written by Chip Deffaa
Directed by Kelly Briggs
Musical direction by John McMahon
Chip Deffaa Invitational Theatre Festival
Café Chashama
111 West 42nd St. (206-1515/
Equity showcase (closes Oct. 13)
Review by Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen

There’s a British advertisement for paint that cuts through client fears with the simple tag-line: "Does Exactly What It Says On The Tin." No fuss, no fancy packaging or promises, just a quality product that gets the job done. The slogan could apply equally well to Chip Deffaa’s compilation show, Mad About The Boy, in which he uses 22 songs to link the voices of gay songwriters from the past 80 years. He provides just enough interesting snippets of historical detail to set up the songs without pretending that the show is anything other than the title suggests: an hour of songs written and performed from the gay perspective. The idea of a gay songwriter is about as novel as that of a Jewish rabbi, but it is refreshing to hear mainstream favorites like "Anything Goes" and "Let’s Do It" in a gay context, releasing the songs’ meanings more completely than the original performances did. Mixed in with more contemporary songs, it offers a stimulating and absorbing view of the New York gay experience.

If there is an overarching theme to the show it is the expression and suppression of love and sexual desire. Along the way, Deffaa harnesses famous figures from the past to give a sense of context to the songs. Thus Baby Jane Dexter made a memorable appearance as an alcohol-fuelled Ma Rainey, whose maudlin "You Don’t Know What Love Is" offered the mesmerizing and discomforting spectacle of self-destructive talent at work; similarly, Karen Oberlin introduced the gay appeal of Doris Day before singing "Secret Love" with a sense of friendly aloofness (unlike Dexter, she never made eye contact with the audience).

Director Kelly Briggs made the most of the space: a central stage area with a raised rostrum that ran along the sides and back of the stage. He wisely refrained from over-staging, instead simply varying the placement of the singers (on bar stools, perched on the piano, sitting on the edge of the stage) to give a sense of transition between songs and moods. He then left the rest to the musical director (John McMahon, who interacted with both cast and audience) and the individual performers. Standouts included Kristy Cates, sexy and defiantly masculine in a black suit and lacy top, who exuded poise whether perched on a throne in a spotlight, punching out the gay-lib anthem "Lavender Nites," or singing a naïve and funny duet with the lively Suzanne Drexler ("He’s So Unusual" they puzzled about their beloved, as they listed all his blatantly gay qualities). Keith Anderson was quietly impressive with "Buddy" and "Secret Passion," in which the longing of the lyrics and music was matched by his reflective manner and sudden vocal surges of emotion. Matthew Helton’s stage presence and wonderfully expressive face were invaluable as the gay man on the run ("Help! The girls are after me!") and in his touching rendition of "Just Some Guy," capturing the racing thoughts and the tentative excitement of the early stages of an affair. Keith Henderson brought a raucous energy and delicious sensuality to his renditions of "Garbage Man" and the cheeky "Who Do You Do?" while Patrick Rinn sashayed and lipsynched expertly as the inevitable drag queen. Altogether, they provided an intelligent and engaging hour of song interpretation and, for non-frequenters of the city’s gay bars, a fresh perspective on the American songbook.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Direction: 1
Musical Direction: 2
Performances: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1
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Copyright 2002 Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen