9/26/2019        BECOMING NANCY                                        Alliance Theatre

THE ADULTS IN THE ROOM

 

So, about an hour ago, while writing about GET's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I made a snide and snarky observation that Tennessee Williams' play is so much more appealing than "more recent politics-on-my-sleeve rage-at-the-ethos offerings."  This is the column in which I gleefully celebrate my shallowness by praising to the sky one of those "more recent politics-on-my-sleeve rage-at-the-ethos offerings," the new (perhaps) Broadway-bound musical, Becoming Nancy.

It's 1979 and we're in London, or at least its across-the-Thames not-so-well-to-do suburb of East Dulwich.  David Starr is almost 17, auditioning for his prep school's production of Oliver!, his heart set on playing Fagin.  Unfortunately, he can sing better than any of the girls in his class, so he gets cast as Nancy.  He's always been the "odd kid on the block" (knowing at age 10  ALL the hand choreography for Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," and this will cement his place at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

It doesn't help that his school, Dog Kennel Hill Kennel Academy (yes there is a real "Dog Kennel Hill" in East Dulwich), is a hotbed of racism, homophobia, and soccer.

It does help that Bill Sykes will be played by the amazingly fit and friendly soccer star Maxie Boswell, who takes an instant liking to David.

It doesn't help that David's father absolutely forbids him to wear a dress. 

It does help that David's mother takes a "We don't NEED your permission" attitude towards her husband, and is excited about creating a nice "prostitute dress" for David.

And it especially doesn't help that David's parents (or, indeed, any of the adults in his life) can't seem to talk to him about the confusing things he is learning about himself

In fact, there are a surprising number of factors that COULD help David with his adolescence -- an adoring aunt, a best friend who encourages him to "embrace his inner Nancy," a sympathetic teacher who becomes tha elusive "adult in rhe room" just when David needs it the most. All that's arrayed against him is the massively monolithic homophobia of Britain's working class.  What could possibly go wrong?

To be honest, I really liked everything about this play, in spite of (maybe because of) its "politics-on-my-sleeve rage-at-the-ethos offerings."  A good script (by Elliot Davis, based on a British Young Adult novel by Terry Ronald) that includes a riot at a "Rock against Racism" concert without bludgeoning us with the thematic parallels, AND a familiar-to-all-of-us look backstage at a High School musical (which seems like a REAL High School musical, not the uber-professional versions from Disney or Glee).   It also includes a stageful of well-rounded, sharp-edged characters, both young and old.  Throw in "fantasy" versions of Kate Bush, Deborah Harry, Sting, ABBA, and Gloria Gaynor, and what's not to love?

It REALLY helps that the score (music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) is a gem, with no weak songs and at least three I would consider classics in the making -- "Six Inches From Your Heart," "On the Night Bus," and "You Matter"** (Of course, I'm guessing at these titles since the program does NOT include a muiscal numbers list).  I appreciated how the fantasy rock stars echoed those musicians' styles without literally "covering" their work, and I especially appreciated how we were treated to hints of Oliver! without incurring the wrath of Lionel Bart's legal watchdogs

All of the characters have interesting arcs -- for example, one of the younger "villains" has a realistic redemption , and David's father goes from villain to reluctant supporter only with ever-increasing difficulty.  On the other hand, I thought the soccer coach had perhaps "one level of villainy too many": Isn't it enough that he does what he can to get Maxie off the stage and "back on the field,"  does he also have to {Deleted by the Spoiler Police}?  But, in the grand scheme of things, this did not affect my enjoyment of this show.

This is mainly a cast of New York (and London) professionals -- Aunt Val is beautifully played by ex-Elphaba Jessica Vosk -- and ALL are a delight to watch.  Zachary Sayle (David) and Jake Boyd (Maxie) had a brilliant chemistry and I never doubted their attraction to each other for a moment.  For the record,  the entire ensemble -- adults included -- beautifully slipped into numerous characters with ease and aplomb.

Earlier this week, someone offered the opinion that that there is too little at stake, too minimal risk to give the play any real depth -- "AIDS will kill too many of these characters in fewer than five years" -- but I respectfully disagree.  The riot at the "Rock Against Racism" concert has real physical consequences, David is threatened by a truly murderous classmate during the Oliver! performance, and David and his best friend are confronted with a mob of thugs (backed up by a local constable) on their way home;  these are real threats that are not minimized.  As for AIDS, since the characters would have known nothing about it, adding it to the story would be not only out-of-period, but counter-productive.  And, to be honest, our knowledge of the epidemic-to-come tempers the feel-good (ish) conclusion with a poignancy that is no doubt intentional.

Kinky Boots Director/Choreographer Jerry Mitchell does the same duty here, and his work (if not Ms. Vosk's participation) may increase the odds of a Broadway production.  I truly hope it does, if, for no other reason, than to get this wonderful score available for repeated listenings.  This is a simple (NOT simplistic) musical with a clear agenda and an oft-repeated message (as well as one message not-so-oft-repeated -- the need for sympatheic "grown-ups in the room" in the lives of adolescent LGBTQIA kids), but it is also compellingly entertaining, and a delightful addition to the Alliance's ever-growing list of pre-Broadway tryouts.

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AllianceBecomingNancy )

**  Talk about your "politics-on-my-sleeve rage-at-the-ethos" offerings!  For a delightful video of Jessica Vosk and Lizzie Bea singing "On the Night Bus," go to this site -- VIEW "ON THE NIGHT BUS" HERE

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