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BWW Review: Entertaining SISSYBOY at NoHo Arts Center

SissyBoy/written & performed by James Mellon/NoHo Arts Center/through March 5

Autobiographical one-man shows are out there in abundance; audience interest and overall success of each depends totally on the appeal of the individual performer. When you have a super talented man like James Mellon, who with his partner of 25 years Kevin Bailey has brilliantly run the NoHo Arts Center since 2004 and has also been a successful minister with the Global Truth Center, how can you come up any less than a winner? SissyBoy now playing at the NoHo Arts Center starts with Jim at age 7 and takes him all the way through his life to his current age, a youthful 61. It is simultaneously a coming.of.age story and at the end a celebration of surviving incredible odds and...embracing one' true identity.

James Mellon grew up in south Philadelphia with an older macho-straight brother Tom and a hard-nosed cop father, who couldn't tolerate calling someone stupid let alone accepting his young son as a faggot. Plus he was brought up a Catholic and attended Catholic schools most of his life. Talk about restricted living! Let's talk about escape!

James opens the show in his mother's closet at age 7 wearing and caressing her wedding gown; it's nothing less than a shameful discovery when she walked in and caught him, confirming the truth behind all the sissy.boy ridicule. Jim had his first taste of homosexual love with a boy named Jeremy, sweetly kissing in a minivan, only to be devastated when the boy moved away. Thank heavens for his love of music - he was known as a look alike David Cassidy in his teen years - and began to wow the girls with his singing and dancing. Yes, there were heterosexual encounters, but... in between high school and college, his overweight friend Joey Volpe, a voluptuous drag queen by night, offered him a chance to perform with him at a local bar. Thus started an array of jobs in drag shows as well as striptease joints like Chippendale's as he eventually wended his way to New York after college. Along the way he had developed his physical body to manly muscled proportions...but to what end? Didn't it camouflage his true inner feelings in the attempt to convince the world that he was someone else, not a sissy.boy?

Whatever, he was plagued throughout his life with accepting his true identity. Mellon tells some absolutely divine stories that emerge from his career on Broadway and on the road. One involves meeting and working with Ann Miller on the road in Panama Hattie. She taught him a few tap routines - which he performs skillfully onstage for us. When he once remarked to Miller that she had beautiful hair, so why did she wear the huge wigs, she shot back, "They don't pay for reality. They want to see a show." Little did she know how times would change! Another story which stands out involves Jerome Robbins who directed Mellon in his first Broadway show West Side Story as Riff in 1980. Known as a terror in the business, Robbins was never satisfied and, just taking one example of his harsh ways, made the dancers work on "Cool" for three hours straight without a break. Finally, when Mellon had the courage to stand up for himself to Robbins, surprisingly he didn't get fired, but Robbins followed him back to his dressing room and said, "Now that's how I want you to play Riff," and walked away.

In later years, around 2010, Mellon developed cancer of the lymph nodes in his neck and had to undergo intensive surgery and a devastatingly arduous therapy afterwards. Now legally married to Kevin Bailey, SissyBoy's prolific director, with two children Will and Nora, Mellon faced death, and the odds of never singing again, but he came away a survivor. Then he finally realized how unimportant were his preoccupations with the appearance of his body and more urgently about his inner self and who he really is. Life is too short and unpredictable not to accept yourself for who you are, so celebrate it loud and strong! At the end he sings a wonderful song, which he composed, "I Know Who I Am".

James Mellon has a casual, friendly delivery and warm persona that are infectious on or off the stage. It is great to see him performing again, though he is out there and does continue to minister weekly. The only constructive criticism I have for this show SissyBoy is that I would like to have heard more singing and seen more dancing intermingled with the anecdotes. However, as is, the presentation is inspirational, thoroughly uplifting and well worth your time, through March 5.

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From This Author Don Grigware