BWW Review: THE NANCE at Spinning Tree Theatre
Kansas City, tip your hats to "The Nance", now playing at the Just Off-Broadway Theatre. Spinning Tree Theatre Company wows the crown with the local premier of a show about Gay Men and Burlesque in 1930's New York City. This well written show, by Douglas Carter Beane that is directed by Michael Grayman-Parkhurst and Nicole Marie Green, gives a historical perspective of New York City in a similar way that Cabaret does for Berlin. Packed tightly with comedy, and with a cast who time it perfectly, it's a fun romp that audiences can really enjoy. However, there are equally moving moments of poignant drama that make this an equally exciting drama.
Beane's play 2013 play premiered at Lincoln Center in New York with a story of a vaudeville troupe. Like "Noises Off" , "Kiss Me Kate, and "Cabaret", the action alternates between scenes of the character's antics on stage and their real life, backstage. The play opens as Chauncey Miles sits at a table at an automat (1930's version of fast food restaurant) and observes Ned, who has recently moved to New York. The automat, in Greenwich Village, is a known gay hangout, and it's the reason Chauncey is there, but carefully as not to draw the ire of local police who are prone to raid such places.
After a brief introduction Chauncey invites Ned to his apartment assuming him to be a curious heterosexual. The next morning, Ned reveals that he has recently left his wife in order to explore his feelings. Though Chauncey is hesitant, he allows love stricken Ned to move in as his lover. Chauncey, meanwhile, reveals that he is an entertainer at the Irving Place Theater, where he plays a "nance" or pansy character onstage. The burlesque show story piques Ned's curiosity and he soon after becomes a regular visitor to Chauncey, backstage.
At the Theater, Efram, the emcee and manager of the troupe, alerts Chauncey to the presence of the police who have taken notice that the theater has been attracting many gay men to the shows. In spite of the warning, Chauncey doesn't believe the pressure from the police will continue after the upcoming elections. Chauncey, as it turns out, is a staunch republican and supporter of NYC mayor Fiorello La Guardia - the source of the gay community attacks.
Their burlesque show includes a trio of women who dance, sing and giggle between one after another comic sketches.In the middle of one of their shows, one of the performers quits, and Ned is thrust on stage as a last-minute replacement. However, in spite of warnings and pleading from Efram, Chauncey can't resist going over the top with his trademark homoerotic character, kisses Efram onstage, and is raided by the police and taken to jail.
Bruised and battered from his court and jail experience, Chauncey returns home to Ned. The strippers and Ephraim have accepted their relationship and the circle of friends regularly gather to gossip of things going on. Under increased scrutiny the group are forced to revise the show to have only one number where a demeaned Chauncey must dress in drag to perform his "nance" act. In spite of support from friends, planned protests, and Ned's love; Chauncey begins to act out his frustration by returning to the automat for sexual encounters. Ned follows Chauncey and learns of his activities and issues him an ultimatum. Under the glare of the spotlight, Chauncey must either adapt, or face the consequences of his rapidly changing life.
Andy Perkin, as Chauncey Miles, brings the complex and flamboyantly gay character to brilliant life. Perkins seamlessly weaves the onstage persona, the back stage hero, and privately scared man carefully together. It is to Perkins credit that he is able to quickly navigate through this script that is loaded with a minefield of emotions.
Timothy Michael Houston, as Ned, uses his coy smile and maturely innocent charm to make the character the perfect balance to the over-the-top antics of Chauncey. Houston shows that while Ned is still learning who he is, he is firmly held to the ideals he knows will make his life complete. It is Houston's believability on which the show's emotional moments depend, and he could not be more convincing.
RH Wilholt, as Efram, lends his comic chops to a role that might at first seem like a supporting role, but gives a performance worth top billing. Wilholt's timing and coordination makes the burlesque show seem like it's been performing for years. His pace in this "show-within-a-show" moves so fast it nearly makes the set pieces spin on their own!
In the tradition of "saving the best for last" - the women of the show. Katie Gilchrist (Sylvie), Ashley Personett (Joan), Sarah Montoya (Carmen), and Victoria Barbee (Rose) bring a refreshing spirit to a show that otherwise might drift into too serious territory. Gilchrist makes Sylvie seem as comfortable strutting her stuff on stage as Bette Midler was in her bath house days. Gilchrist gives a powerfully captivating portrayal of the risqué stripper that is unapologetic. When Sylvie takes the stage she's leaving no prisoners. Personett crafts a more seductive stripper persona yet keeps her vivacious back stage, as well. Montoya is alluring as Carmen and together with Gilchrist and Personett gives the show some harmonic musical moments. These three, along with the all too briefly appearing Barbee as Rose, show that even in a show revolving around male leads the women are a force to be reckoned with.
The production team includes: Nicole Jaja (Lighting Design), Shannon Smith-Regnier (Costume Design), Robert Crone (Scenic Design), Jeff Eubank (Sound Design), Gary Green (Music Coordinator), Eric Palmquist (Properties Design), and T. J. Burton (Stage Management).
"The Nance" runs through November 18th at the Just Off-Broadway Theatre, which is located at 3051 Penn Valley Dr, Kansas City, MO 64108. There is plenty of free parking in the theatre lot. Not a show for children, this one has adult content and language and there is a 15 minute intermission.
Photos courtesy of Robert Schraeder / Spinning Tree Theatre