The Harvey Milk Show/The Expense of Spirit | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Harvey Milk Show/The Expense of Spirit


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Bailiwick Repertory


Bailiwick Repertory

At first glance a musical about the rise and premature fall of a figure like Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco city supervisor of the late 1970s, seems foolhardy. One can imagine the stock scenes of political idealism winning the day, the stirring anthems sung with chins nobly raised, the tirelessly spunky acting, the relentless musical-theater optimism. And certainly Dan Pruitt's and Patrick Hutchison's original musical The Harvey Milk Show suffers from all these pitfalls, notably in the first act. But if one endures to the end, there are nuggets of gold as well.

The first act is disappointingly conventional and predictable. Jamey (George B. Smart III), the down-and-out cowboy hustler with whom Milk eventually finds love, opens the show in a chipper, energized drunken stupor of the sort seen only in musicals. Harvey Milk (Robert Cooner), the consummate idealist cum showman, shakes a lot of hands, makes a lot of speeches, and sings a lot of songs, winning over a wary electorate. Milk's neighbor Mr. Murphy (Ed Kross) has the unfortunate line, "Everything is changing, even old Castro Street." Jamey professes his affection for Milk by saying, "You know, Harvey, I like you. But you just might be crazy as hell." There's a lot of hustle and bustle as over a dozen performers scurry from scene to scene, but everything's painted in flat, generic strokes. The entire affair feels 30 years out of date.

But in the second act Pruitt and Hutchison take a few risks, and they pay off beautifully. Instead of asking us to take all these overwrought scenes and antiquated conventions at face value, the show acknowledges its own artifice, taking a much more presentational approach: it's as if the actors can finally admit that this is only a show after all. Jamey's touching solo, "If You're Here," is delivered stock-still in a solo spot. Anita Bryant and her antigay campaign are lampooned in a Carmen Miranda number complete with four-foot inflatable bananas stolen wholesale from Busby Berkeley.

The result is a welcome relaxation of the "if we just sing and talk faster and louder, maybe you'll believe us" sensibility of the first act. The audience is now included in the joke--it is rather silly, after all, when people break into song at the drop of a hat, especially when everyone around them acts as if this were everyday stuff.

With this relaxation Pruitt and Hutchison are able to reach genuine emotional heights. The simple love story between Jamey and Milk becomes touchingly poignant as the two waltz in Milk's office, both aware how hackneyed this gesture may appear. At the show's emotional high point--Milk's assassination by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White--the creators thankfully resist any temptation to realistically portray the survivors' grief and pain. Instead the ensemble light candles and, under Daniel Stetzel's exquisite musical direction, sing an a cappella eulogy to love. The moment is emotionally complex, for many loves have suddenly been killed: the love of Milk's supporters for their hero as well as Milk's love of truth and fairness. Jamey's love burns cruelly on--his candle is the first lit and last extinguished--though Milk is no longer there to receive it.

Much of the credit for these powerful later scenes must go to the spirited cast and to director Matt Callahan, who shows a gentle touch. Cooner and Smart deserve special recognition for pouring so much of their hearts into their roles and rising above occasionally flat material.

The nascent brilliance of The Harvey Milk Show lies in the fact that it's not really the story of Harvey Milk at all. It's the story of Jamey, the survivor: the archetypal wayward soul whose newly found security is completely shattered. His spiritual challenge is to find a reason to continue. Neither the production nor the script takes full advantage of this character, but his powerfully human story offers the kind of emotional sweep that could carry The Harvey Milk Show.

How's this for prickling the hairs on the back of your theatergoing neck: an original, collaborative ensemble piece about "issues related to gay sexuality," specifically, "anonymous sexual encounters." Haven't Oprah and Geraldo gotten all the mileage there is to get out of these issues?

But judging by The Expense of Spirit, created by director Michael Barto, composer Douglas Wood, and a powerhouse 12-person cast, tabloid TV has only scratched the surface. Spirit intriguingly weaves together personal stories, fantasy sequences, and pop-culture send-ups that all revolve around the aching search for sexual and spiritual union. From the opening montage of newspaper matching ads, however, it's clear that the odds against such a union are great. While the men who offer up litanies of superficial personal attributes and sexual proclivities are rewarded with excited leers from other cast members, the one man who professes a desire for friendship and intimacy receives cold, disbelieving stares.

The show is highly fluid, almost dreamlike. A porno star leaps out of his film to embrace his admirer, and then the two suddenly switch roles. As they cling together they start to confess to their absent mothers that they're gay. Immediately a scene from the film Ordinary People is enacted across the stage, with the porno star jumping in to play the Mary Tyler Moore role.

This destabilizing narrative technique not only adds a giddy spontaneity but works well with the show's central concern: the search for a genuine self, which seems to continuously slip away just as it comes within reach. The fear of losing oneself, or of falling in love with a false other, forms the emotional core of The Expense of Spirit. As one actor says, he's terrified of being found out and terrified that no one will ever really know him.

Throughout the evening the men try to see beyond the restrictive roles--top, bottom, daddy, etc--that have been mysteriously handed down to them by gay culture, and with which they continue to identify even when those roles seem false. The challenge is to see themselves and others truly, outside the bounds of such dehumanizing constraints.

In essence Spirit is about the search for authenticity. And for better or worse, that search is centered here almost wholly around sex. The sexual experience of true union hangs above this production like the holy grail--which makes the choice of lots of simulated sex onstage highly problematic. Putting fake sex onstage makes sex seem less real, not more, no matter what the positions or number of participants. All the sex quickly degenerates into titillation, since it never moves beyond an aesthetic dimension. Moreover, the decision to have the cast act out sex acts described by others falls disappointingly flat in an evening full of so many other imaginative choices. Sex becomes the generic bump-and-grind--and thus loses the metaphorical significance this production wants to give it.

The only female cast member (Rhea Anne Cook) is not successfully integrated. For the most part Cook stays on the periphery of the action, a guiding muse with a knowing smile, singing Wood's simple and haunting songs, most of which have an ironic religious absolutism. At other times, however, she appears in scenes as various bit characters, muddying her function in the piece.

Barto's direction is generally first-rate: the show runs wildly in all directions without ever stumbling, and it comes in at just over an hour. His cast claim the stage from the first moment and throw themselves into the fray with admirable abandon. While the acting ranges from sophisticated to amateurish, each performer approaches the material honestly. It becomes clear that we're watching real people, who whatever their acting abilities are infinitely more intriguing than fictional characters. Of particular note are the spectacularly funny Roscoe Fraser and Mark Insko, who raise camp to new heights of sublimity.

In their explorations these artists have touched upon many issues related to their sexual identities. There are so many issues, however, that they can't go too deeply into any of them, and the result is an evening more entertaining than thought provoking. However, the rehearsal process has clearly liberated a highly theatrical energy. Perhaps another project will allow them to reach deeper into this material.

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