Dallas — Uptown Players' fourth annual Pride Performing Arts Festival kicked off last weekend with a staged concert of the musical The Last Session, which Uptown first produced in 2003 at the K.D. Studio Theatre. The festival closes with sex columnist Dan Savage performing Savage Love Live at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Below Mark Lowry reviews The Last Session; that's followed by reviews of four other shows in the festival, reviewed by David Novinski. Those four are performed in Frank's Place, on the second floor of the Kalita.
The Last Session
By Steve Schalchlin, Jim Brochu, John Bettis and Marie Cain
It's not a stretch to make this a concert staging, considering that it takes place in a recording studio and the main character Gideon sits at a piano the whole time, and the others on stools with music stands. The women in the show, Denise Lee as Tryshia and Sara Shelby-Martin as Vicki, were also in the 2003 production, in the same roles. New is Gary Lynn Floyd as Gideon, a songwriter whose HIV meds aren't working anymore, and who wants to record one last session with his favorite supporting singers; and Peter DiCesare as a stalkerish young singer, Buddy, who weasels his way into the session. Dennis Canright plays the studio manager Jim.
I saw the original production, and as the son of a preacher man, was as moved this time as the first time. Maybe more so.
The music, played by Floyd on an electric piano, has a CCM (contemporary Christian music) feel, which is appropriate for a show that deals with the clashing of religion and homosexuality. Gideon was a CCM writer and singer, and Buddy is a rising star in that world.
What I love about it is that while there are barbs thrown, neither side is judged irreparably. It asks for conversation and compassion.
If you saw the original Uptown production with Buddy played by Jeff Kinman, who died in 2013, then you know DiCesare has the deck stacked against him, especially on the song "Going It Alone." He handles it admirably, and is charming as a naive boy from Texas. The bitchy banter between Lee and Shelby-Martin is hilarious, and they both sing their pipes off. Floyd is a model of calm, and as always, mesmerizing when he sings.
This was the only performance of The Last Session in the PPAF, but if Uptown ever stages it again, get tickets. I'd love to see it with this cast in a full production. They're pretty perfect.
— Mark Lowry
By Jane Shepherd
A gussied up girl, Kelli (Susan Riley), opens her door to find a woman, Arlin (Angela Allen) in a parka holding flowers. Assuming that she’s a flower delivery person, Kelli is mortified when it turns out that in fact, Arlin’s her blind date, because, well, she’s not gay. This is just the first in a pas de deux of faux pas between two lonely ladies, one straight and one not. Director Ashley H. White makes the most out of the odd couple chemistry. Riley is most successful when offending and Allen, being offended.
The meandering misunderstandings manage laughs, at first, and then veer off into a more manipulative direction. The whole thing teeters on the edge of the sort of wish fulfillment that is usually reserved for bad porn intros. Nothing graphic like that happens here but the threat hangs thick despite the comedic attack of the actresses. It could be a heartening piece were it not for the feeling that playwright Shepherd begins with images and then writes backward to fit her scenarios.
— David Novinski
From White Plains
By Michael Perlman
Bullying only exists in an imbalance of power. When Dennis (Austin Tindle) uses his Oscar acceptance speech to name his high school bully, Ethan (Jeff Burleson), the power shifts back the other way. Along for the tilt are Ethan’s best friend, John (David Price) and Dennis’ boyfriend, Gregory (Angel Velasco). The slide is steeper for some than others and one hardly moves at all.
Director Kevin Moore is blessed with a capable cast. Though their characters are affected more peripherally, Velasco and Price provide potent counterpoint to the main characters, with Velasco almost stealing the show in an utterly unforced performance. Burleson somehow takes our hatred and turns it to pity as his believable bully begins to be bullied. Tindle’s efforts are less effective as the victim-turned-victor, but that is partially the fault of the script.
Playwright Perlman almost reinvents the discussion over the corrupting influence of power, but succumbs himself, penning a climactic monologue that is as powerful and heartfelt as it is one-sided. In his vengeance, Dennis is no nearer catharsis than we are to understanding. Clearly, the effects of bullying are long lasting.
— David Novinski
By Bruce R. Coleman
Writer/director Bruce R. Coleman has Gregg Gerardi open his world premiere of Mythical Beastie with an architecture lecture complete with Powerpoint. Don’t fret. You’ll soon forget this opening misfire when the play and laughs begin in earnest.
Mark (Gerardi) is an architect and he lives with his womanizing best friend from college, Greg (Blake Blair), in a historically accurate renovation of an Oak Cliff duplex. Yes, playwright Coleman will be peppering the proceedings with the places and peoples of our Metroplex. Director Coleman helps the cast navigate between references ranging from off-hand location specificity to skewering local celebrities. Some of the biggest laughs to be had in Dallas this week are upstairs at Frank’s Place.
The cast takes a while to get clicking but does just in time to keep the love triangle from being tired. Greg is late getting home for his date, Wendy (Nikki McDonald). So, gay roommate Mark has to entertain his friend’s presumed conquest. When Greg does get home, he drops a bomb that changes all three of their lives.
Gerardi plays burdened best friend with snarky exasperation and McDonald distinguishes herself with deft use of Coleman’s wit (she probably gets the biggest laughs but they’re hard to measure when they’re that large), but it’s Blair who makes the show really work. Not just providing the missing beat needed to sync up the comedic timing, but the charisma to take the scenario from farcical fantasy to earnest hope. His show-ending monologue is a clinic in honest simplicity.
A mythical beastie, indeed.
— David Novinski
The Falling Man
By Will Scheffer
Due to an illness, the four-monologue show is reduced to three. Darius Anthony Robinson plays as a drag queen that’s left the stage life but not the stage longing. As he changes out of his drag queen regalia, he tells the story of his performing partner who saved his life and taught him the “Fire Dance” act that they performed together.
The second piece entitled, “One Man’s Meat,” is so dependent on it’s double entendre dynamism that it’s impossible to write much without spoiling the gag. Kevin Moore revels in the fun as he folds the meaning back and forth, but he isn’t afraid to take it all the way. The audience was squirming by the end.
Coy Covington puts the “grand” in grand finale in the final movement that gives the show its title: The Falling Man. Covington plays the former cha-cha champion of the world who is now prone to falling due to his losing battle with HIV. Steven Rob Pounders gently tends to his medical needs as he remembers his triumph in dance and love. It’s a heartfelt and haunting performance that leaves the audience somber when the lights return.
— David Novinski
The remainder of the Pride Performing Arts Festival schedule:
Sept. 17, 8 p.m. Dysfunctional Divas by Steven Jay Crabtree
Sept. 18, 8 p.m. Falling Man by Will Scheffer
Sept. 19, 8 p.m. From White Plains by Michael Perlman
Sept. 20, 2 p.m. Mythical Beastie by Bruce R. Coleman
Sept. 20, 4:30 p.m. From White Plains by Michael Perlman
Sept. 20, 6:30 p.m. Commencing by Jane Shephard
Sept. 20, 8 p.m. Savage Love Live featuring Dan Savage