If Dallas were to choose its Wonder Woman actress, it would have to be Morgana Shaw. The woman can out-sing and out-dance a crowd of 20 something performers pumping it hard beside her, any day. See her in a comedy or farce, and she tops the show. Marvel at her mastery of text, nuance and layered characterization in drama. Film? She makes the camera worship her.
Currently she’s starring as aging pop/disco femme fatale/ chanteuse Billie Trix in the US premiere of the Pet Shop Boys’ musical Closer to Heaven. She unleashes her magical stage talents to hold together an entertaining, less than spectacular show with predictable script and unremarkable, if energetic, disco-style score. She is Woman; hear her roar.
Uptown Players presents Closer to Heaven at Dallas’ Kalita Humphreys Theater under the able direction of veteran musical theatre director Bruce R. Coleman; the nearly full house gave the US premiere of Closer To Heaven enthusiastic response opening night. LA Blogger Robbie Daw shot candids at the Kalita Humphreys Theater opening night and posted them with a short You-Tube video of the final number “A Positive Role Model” here: http://chartrigger.blogspot.com/2010/10/closer-to-heaven.html
Written by Jonathan Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys (British synth-pop/disco music duo Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe) the musical premiered in May 2001 at the Arts Theatre in London, opening to mixed reviews. According to Wikipedia, several of its tunes received pre-release on the Pet Shop Boys’ 1999 album Nightlife, including the show’s strongest number “Closer to Heaven”. The show’s dominant setting is a cavernous, multi-level warehouse of a seedy gay nightclub. Designed in lurid, garish tones with flanking skeletal scaffolding by Andy Redmon, some of its backdrop looks borrowed from Uptown’s Equus, produced earlier this year. The multiple levels and landings give ample opportunity for the cast and dancing/ singing ensemble of twelve to gyrate, thrust, strut, pump, bump, grind, mime copulation and karate kick enthusiastically through two full acts. Pulsing lighting in sync with the music reinforces the sensually focused disco ambience (Julie Moroney) as well as the hyper-amped drug culture theme that underscores the show’s plot. Ketamine flows freely.
Main characters get professional, clearly realized treatment by Coleman’s versatile cast. Coy Covington draws a memorable picture as the sleazy, opportunistic promoter Bob Saunders and effectively communicates venal savagery along with sardonic restraint in his two main songs, “Call Me Old Fashioned” in Act One and “Shameless” in Act Two.
Dallas newcomer Evan Fuller brings requisite good looks (fully clothed and less so) and soulful singing voice to the romantic lead role Straight Dave (who apparently isn’t); Clayton Younkin has some winsome, believable moments as Dave’s true love and major drug dealer Mile End Lee. In the thankless role of the nightclub owner’s smart-mouth daughter Shell who falls for (and sleeps with) Dave when he claims he’s straight, Lee Jamison Wadley creates a sympathetic character who doesn’t get too stereotypically shrill or vengeful when Dave’s bent surfaces. Jason C. Kane gives the only low-key, realistic portrayal in the show, as nightclub owner Vic. It’s a relief to have him fill the stage with natural energy after all the non-stop drugged-out hyperactivity. Choreography by John de los Santos verges on aerobics class workout occasionally but is sure to please that element of Uptown’s audience that comes mostly for the buff boy booty buffet. Adam C. Wright did a masterful job directing the music in coordination with sound designer Virgil Justice, loud and pounding as needed but never overpowering the singers. Live orchestra offstage executes the show’s nineteen numbers with fluency and rock steady disco drone. (Adam C. Wright, conductor and keyboard 1; Kevin Gunter on keyboard 2; Rick Norman on bass; Jason Bennett on guitar; Steve Begnoche, percussion; Buffi Jacobs on cello).
The plot’s predictable; the music you may forget by the time you reach your car. Go to celebrate the incomparable Morgana Shaw in her Uptown Players’ premiere and enjoy regional actor/director Coy Covington in an unusual, striking portrayal.
Closer to Heaven runs through October 24 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., in Dallas
Tickets: www.uptownplayers.org or 214-219-2718
Photos by Mike Morgan