Show (and Tell) Tunes
Picture this: Four plastic hand puppets from a kid's meal provide backing vocals to an evangelistic Bible-thumper who whines at the top of her annoyingly squeaky voice that "God hates queers. They stick their willies up each other's rears." If you can't wrap your brain around such an absurdity, then perhaps you need a trip to artistic director Joe Watts's Theatre New West, the latest playhouse in Houston's burgeoning gay theater scene. There's just something so right about the idea of tiny toy T-Rex homophobes supporting the real dinosaurs of reactionary right-wing thought, who live to tell the world what God thinks.
Watts's staging -- he does double duty as producer and director -- of "God Hates Fags" is just one of many perfectly silly moments in Eric Lane Barnes's Fairy Tales, a 90-minute musical revue about gay life, mean-spirited Christians and the sorrows of AIDS. Take, for instance, "Illinois Fred," sung by the hugely talented Keith Caldwell. Clad in black from his swanky shirt to his shit-kicking boots, the mysterious Cowboy Fred saunters in through the swinging doors of a Western-style tavern and proceeds to befuddle a Stetson-wearing local boy who sings that Fred "was the cleanest damned cowboy I'd seen in a week .I never knew cowboys were into antiques."
Even more outrageous, "You're the Bottom," sung by J. Leigh Lucas and Stephen Humble, is nothing more than a hilarious litany of spit-nasty put-downs. The withering list includes such slams as "You're a Wal-Mart negligee," "Tom Snyder in a dress," "You're the ears of Ross Perot" and "a song by Megadeth." But the funniest tune has to be "The Letter Song," sung by Humble, Caldwell and Alex Stutler. Humble walks onto the stage and stands in a single spotlight. Twinkly, sappy-sounding notes make the moment terribly melodramatic. He reads a few lines of a Dear John letter, something like, "I'm going to find me a new man, honey." Outraged, Humble declares that he's glad the old lover has left because "you use a lot of bad grammar, baby." The humor is all in the timing -- and in the sweet-sounding backup Humble receives from Caldwell and Stutler. Goofy and full of sly puns, these songs are charming in spite of some stiff staging that includes Lawrence Welk-like strolls around the boards. What's truly surprising here, however, is the power these actors find in the more serious tunes. "The Ballad of Tammy Brown," about a high school lesbian who's shunned by everyone including her best friend, is a seemingly simple song. Its prosaic lyrics tell about a banal moment of school-yard nastiness. But the lovely Melanie Donihoo finds an urgent depth in the tale, and she fills up the music with the sort of soulful regret that lingers well after the final curtain falls. Strong too is Stutler's rendition of "Dear Dad," which depicts one man's decision to come out to his father. Amazingly, Barnes gets away with the letter-as-song device twice in the same show. In fact, the repetition underscores, with bitter irony, the seriousness of the second missive/tune. No heterosexual man in love would have to pen this sort of confession.
But the real highlight of the show is Caldwell's performance of "Hummingbird." Lyrical, even majestic in its homely simplicity, the tune captures a quiet moment between two lovers. One is desperately sick, and the other is desperately avoiding grief. The comforter offers his dying lover a cup of water, a glance out the window, anything at all that maintains the intimacy between them. Such a song tiptoes along the precipice of melodrama; any false move on the singer's part can send it headlong into the black hole of Hallmark ickiness. But Caldwell handles the material with a lush and muscular delicacy. His face and his voice, at once clear and hushed, shine with the sort of heartbreaking hopefulness that can be found only in those lost last moments before the crush of grief bends life and changes its course forever. Such moments on stage are rare and wonderful.
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The show is not without its weak spots. Too many songs focus on the rantings of the religious right. Too many blackouts between scenes are interminably long. And too many tunes (the program is filled with titles such as "Flying Dreams," "Keepers of the Light" and "When You Meet an Angel") are filled with the sort of sentimental drivel that is usually reserved for greeting cards, network TV and, ironically enough, Christian rock.
But there's nothing here that a pair of scissors and a steady hand couldn't fix. Besides, who could turn down an opportunity to see those proselytizing hand puppets?
Fairy Tales runs through Saturday, August 5, at Theatre New West, 1415 California, (713)394-0464. $20.
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