BEING BEAUTIFUL, Chicago Theatre Company. Note: if you love a good drag queen, this new musical has four. Afton Cousins is a black sharecropper's son who flees the farm for 1939 Chicago, where he's transformed into cross-dressing cabaret star Aftrina by gay grande dame Miss Lonette and her protegees: tall, sassy African-American Ellen and petite Russian Jew Leslie. These engagingly outrageous characters are given slick, lively portrayals by Raufel Muhammad, Gordon McClure, Langstan Martin Smith, and Bailey Boudreau respectively; director Delia Jolly Gray's production benefits from McClure's choreography and Christine E. Pascual's costumes.
McKinley Johnson's script--a heartfelt attempt to honor the "twilight men" of a generally repressive era, though Halloween balls might be attended by Windy City society slumming among the gay demimonde--thoughtfully explores the complexities of "being beautiful": sweet Afton pursues both material glamour and spiritual grace. But it gets bogged down by a cumbersome flashback structure and underdeveloped or arbitrary crises involving Afton's weak heart, conflicts with his seemingly straitlaced sister (Phyllis Overstreet) and her illegitimate daughter (Norrisa Pearson), on-off relationship with a handsome insurance executive (Anthony Pierre Christopher), and a climactic outburst of jealous violence, which unconvincingly sends Afton scurrying back into the closet.
Johnson and Stephanie Newsom's score--a proficient if rather generic synthesis of jazz, blues, and gospel--provides a strong framework for the excellent singing. But Being Beautiful needs a good deal of reworking (and cutting) to be truly beautiful itself.