Review: Pride Arts' GRINDR: THE OPERA Worth a Hook Up
GRINDR: THE OPERA [AN UNATHORIZED PARODY] is unfortunately a victim of guilt by association. Running through July 28th at Pride Arts' The Buena, 4147 N. Broadway, the show succeeds in riding the line between thoughtfulness and sleaze. There are moments of surprising emotional depth and still others in which you long for a cleansing shower and hope your feet don't stick to the floor (they don't, for the record).
Still, the title alone is probably enough to keep more than a few people from ponying up tickets and that's a shame, really. Erik Ransom, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, is a fine composer whose score runs the gamut from flowery, flowing arias to dance club-inspired techno pop with a healthy dose of Gilbert and Sullivan thrown in. His lyrics and character development remind one of a young William Finn.
But that's only if you can get past the title. Grindr, for the uninitiated, is a mobile app designed to make finding sexual flings surprisingly easy. There is far more going on here than the mere title would immediately suggest.
Ransom's book borrows a page from Neil Gaiman's American Gods and envisions Grindr (Bruno Rivera) as the modern persona of a goddess of wanderlust who is given new life when the website Manhunt.com falls out of favor and the Grindr app is created. Mesmerized beneath the pale light of the gay hook up app, a legion of men rise up to unintentionally worship her anew.
She is assisted in her quest by her underlings Occulto (Andrew Flynn) and Dilectus (Brandon Krisko). Along with Grindr, the trio form a Greek chorus of sorts, reacting to and nudging the action along.
The opera concerns itself with a quartet of men ensnared in her siren web. John Cardone (who does double duty here as the show's director) plays Don, a closeted, conservative Republican who has resigned to the fact that he sometimes has to pay for sex. He hooks up with the twink Jack (Evan Wilhelm) who initially rejects him because of his age and then relents when he sees the cash.
Devon (a sensitive and thoughtful Justin Cavazos) is a doctor at a Howard Brown-type clinic who has spent the last year lonely and a bit horny after breaking up with a long term boyfriend. Through the app he meets Tom (Ben Broughton perfectly cast as the handsome, boy next door type). Though initially looking for a NSA (no strings attached) hook up, he ends up smitten with Devon and lets him spend the night.
Cardone's Don could easily be the villain of the piece, but Cardone shows us enough layers to his character that you almost feel sorry for him. His Don is clearly conflicted between his lust and adoration of all things youthful and the anger and resentment he feels because life has passed him by. It's a terrific performance.
Cavazos and Broughton have much chemistry and are completely convincing as a couple so in love with each other that they are willing to delete the app from their respective phones. Of course, this is not something that Grindr can let stand (she needs to constantly feed off the lust of her users) and, this being an opera, you know any happiness will probably be short-lived.
Concerning the score, Grindr's aria succeeds in being grand, beautiful and slightly menacing. Cardone somehow manages to wrap his lips around the rapid-fire lyrics of "The Very Model" (modeled after a well-known, certain G&S tune). Cavazos and Broughton harmonize beautifully on "We Met on Grindr." The last tune is the one that will stick with you after the show -always a good sign with any musical.
Director Cardone keeps the action moving along at a brisk pace. Shawn Quinlan's choreograpy makes the most of the tiny stage. Wilhelm surprises with a few of gymnastic flips that are quite impressive given the space he is working with (and, let's face it, one misstep and a backflip becomes an audience lap dance).
What Quinlan's costume designs miss in cost they make up for in creativity. At one point, Grindr emerges wearing a pleated and flowing white gown that turns out to be just two bed sheets that have been creatively cinched and folded. Quinlan's creativity shines through even on a limited budget.
The Pride Arts' production is a bit bare bones. Rivera's falsetto is so powerful, one expects the paint to be peeling in the back row of the cozy and intimate little theater where the show is currently playing. It also means that a little of the opera goes a long way. By the end of the 80 minute show, you might find yourself wishing he would forgo the operatic theatrics and sing in his normal register. An operatic voice like that is just not built for a small space.
A big-budget, Off-West End production of the show recently beat out SIX for best new musical at the Offies (the Chicago production of SIX at Chicago Shakes is one of the summer's biggest hits). You definitely see the potential the show has and I can only think the Chicago production would be better served with a larger budget and bigger theater. (I'm sure Pride Arts' David Zak would be happy to entertain any offers from prospective producers, should you feel so inclined).
In the end, the opera that has a notorious sex app as its title ends up being surprisingly thoughtful. For those daring to purchase a ticket, GRINDR: THE OPERA succeeds in a profound examination of dating and monogamy in the modern era.
GRINDR: THE OPERA [AN UNATHORIZED PARODY] runs through July 28th at Pride Arts' The Buena, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets $20-$40. www.pridefilmsandplays.com`