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Theatre in Review: Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical (Theatre at St. Clement's)

Anthony Wayne. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The procession of inside-the-music jukebox tuners continues with Mighty Real, which covers the life of Sylvester, the androgynous disco diva who made his mark on the '70s music scene with such hits as "Can't Stop Dancing," "Do You Wanna Funk," and "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)." I once wrote that in the future, every book and film would become a musical. I now extend this to include every catalog of pop music. Whether this one will be of interest to anyone beyond hardcore Sylvester fans is open to question, however.

As show business sagas go, Sylvester's life follows a fairly standard rise-and-fall scenario. Born into poverty in South Central Los Angeles, Sylvester James, Jr. fell in love with music at Sunday Pentecostal services, but at an early age it became obvious that his life was headed in another direction. He reportedly entered into his first sexual relationship, with a member of the congregation, at the age of eight -- interestingly, Mighty Real portrays this episode as molestation, although Sylvester always maintained it was consensual -- and, by the time he was 14, he was on his own and homeless. He became a member of the Disquotays, a group of Los Angeles-based cross-dressers best known for their elaborate house parties. (Interestingly, they were taken up for a time by Etta James.)

The Disquotays broke up and Sylvester moved to San Francisco, joining the gay comedy troupe The Cockettes. He began performing on his own and, after a false start as a pop recording artist, caught the wave of the new style of music known as disco, turning out one hit album after another and earning national status as a gay icon. The rest makes for depressing reading: A series of broken romances, diva behavior that alienated those around him, plastic surgery to fix blemishes that didn't really exist, and, finally, a happy relationship terminated by his lover's death from AIDS. The disease also claimed Sylvester in 1988, when he was 41. He pulled himself together to appear, in a wheelchair, in the 1988 gay pride parade in San Francisco, but the gay world as he knew it -- of carefree promiscuity, drugs, and dancing all night -- was fading fast.

You'll get some of this, but hardly all, in Mighty Real, which is really a Sylvester tribute act, with a "book" that consists entirely of running commentary between the songs. The sketchy narrative, consisting mostly of generalities and clich├ęs, skips over any number of things, including several key romances, the Cockettes' disastrous New York debut (which hastened Sylvester's departure from the group), and money problems, as well as his familial ups and downs. (If somebody wanted to flesh out this material, it might make for a potent tears-and-laughter musical melodrama, but that's another conversation.) Instead, Mighty Real is designed to showcase the Broadway performer Anthony Wayne (Anything Goes; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Pippin). Wayne is gifted with a strong presence and powerful wail of a singing voice -- which, as it happens, has little to do with Sylvester's ethereal falsetto, which floated like a visitation of ectoplasm above the instrumental lines.

Although most of the show's numbers are taken from Sylvester's albums, the most enjoyable items are not his signature hits. There's a nice cover of "Ooh Baby Baby," which The Miracles parlayed into a hit, and a medley of two Barry Manilow songs, "Could It Be Magic" and "A Song for You," proves that you can find soul in the whitest of white-bread material. There's a fun rendition of "It's Raining Men," to mark the moment when Sylvester's backup singers, Two Tons of Fun, broke away, renaming themselves The Weather Girls. (Amusingly, Mighty Real treats this relatively banal occurrence as the most devastating of betrayals, suggesting that Sylvester must have been a handful.) On the other hand, a version of "Cry Me a River" is drowned under a wall-of-sound treatment. And, live performance -- especially with a five-piece band in a theatre with questionable acoustics -- is hardly the best way to recreate the highly processed sound of the era's music, so the likes of "Dance (Disco Heat)" and "Do You Wanna Funk" don't really have that disco sizzle. (The sound design, by J. Rafael Carlotto, isn't helpful; too often, the vocal and musical lines are lost in a kind of sonic soup.) Anyway, Anastacia McCleskey and Jacqueline B. Arnold, as Two Tons/The Weather Girls, sing their hearts out, as does Wayne.

David Lander designed the very basic set, consisting of a staircase and a big Sylvester sign; Lander's lighting pays homage to the pre-moving light era, using gelled PAR cans to provide a variety of pulse and chase sequences. (Needless to say, there are many, many mirrorball effects.) The costumes, by Kendrell Bowman, who co-directed with Wayne, are appropriately bedizened with spangles and sequins.

There's no getting around the fact that Mighty Real isn't good enough to attract a wide audience. Still, those around me -- largely middle-aged and gay -- seemed happy to boogie down this particular memory lane. If you yearn for those long-ago nights at The Saint and Paradise Garage -- and you're not too choosy -- you might find it, if not mighty real, then maybe real enough.--David Barbour

(15 September 2014)

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