Contributor Marcus Scott gets real with the new musical about legendary performer Sylvester.
A star is born with the green light on Broadway chorus boy Anthony Wayne, known for his roles in celebrated shows Pippin and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, performing in a jukebox revue as one of the world’s most innovative underground acts. With Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical, the bio-musical following the life and times of disco diva Sylvester James, Jr. From his days as a gospel choir boy in a Pentecostal church in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood where he was persecuted for his sexuality to the 1988 Castro Street Fair where crowds chanted his name to an ear-splitting crescendo, Wayne handles the role with ethos and charisma. The song-and-dance man obviously did his homework, going as far as giving the audience a look behind the man by providing some of his favorite church hymns and perfecting the iconic performer’s ticks.
For diehards, the 90-minute musical spares the often-desired sordid details of the singer’s life, instead opting for a more straightforward approach of telling the story from birth to death; a no-no when it comes to most stage plays. Rather than transporting the audience to a moment in time (Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill) or focusing on the early life of the artist (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), the play follows the protagonist from childhood to dying breath and beyond the grave.
Sadly, the story is told as more as a history presentation with live music. It is because of this, though heavily entertaining, the show suffers from a thin plot that is crafted and orchestrated only to introduce the next song. Instants that could create tension or prompt more dialogue are washed over for the sake of getting the next bullet point on an otherwise colorful saga of one of the world’s premier falsettos. Moments of catharsis are reduced to empty sentiments that could be stronger if Wayne and company simmered in the grit of the times. After all, there was no one more connected to the zeitgeist of the gay underground in the age of decadence than Sylvester, who lived long enough to see many of his friends contract AIDS and fade away before perishing of the same in 1988. Much of this information is told almost in passing, written only for the occult followers of the gay icon music and legacy.
That’s not to say, the show isn’t the promenade of confetti and footlights it promises in its title. Much like the climax of George C. Wolfe and Susan Birkenhead’s 1992 dramatic bio-musical opus Jelly’s Last Jam, Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical is more of a going away jamboree for one of the most prominent black queer heroes. Co-directors (and life partners) Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman treat their narrative with tender love and care, evident with their eagle-eyed precision with a retro ‘70s lighting and scenic staging by David Lander and costume designs, also by Bowman. Bowman gets “two snaps” for his period-heavy stitches that mirrored the singer’s most emblematic fashion statements. Operating on a shoestring budget of $21,000 from their successful Kickstarter campaign, Wayne and Bowman did the impossible in bringing a neon flamingo like Sylvester to life off stage. Provided there is a transfer, one could only hope for more costume changes in that department, however. After all, when it comes to the subject of Sylvester, theatricality was the artist’s ambrosia.
As co-director, all eyes are on Wayne, a veteran Broadway ensemble member who has twirled out onto center stage without batting an eye. It is also one of the hardest roles to play Off-Broadway: As Sylvester, the Duchess of Disco, Wayne has the burden of reviving a legendary bon vivant recording artist who thrived on pushing buttons and fanning fires. He succeeds. A Molotov cocktail of guts, gospel and glitter, Sylvester’s short though prolific career rivaled that of other disco queens Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and Evelyn “Champagne” King. Once dubbed “Queen Of Disco,” Sylvester turned heads with his flamboyant and androgynous façade, often being dubbed a drag queen, which he denounced throughout his career. But with such exquisite taste in lavish furs, sparkling gold lame, rhinestones and champagne—not to mention his profoundly mascara’d face and lip-glossed mug—he was one in a million.
Wayne, whose stratospheric high-flying falsetto sends seismic sensations through the crowd, is thrillingly superb, dissecting the somewhat plastic veneer of the disco star, and perhaps commenting with a flash of a glistening Vaseline smile and wide-eyed ambition. Giving his backup singers a moment in the sun, the audience is also treated to the Magna Carta of diva worship with a funky medley of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and Ike and Tina Turner’s fabled 1971 rendition of “Proud Mary.” DeAnne Stewart, making her Off-Broadway debut, shines with a bubbly rendition of the latter, and compliments the voices of vocal heavyweights Jacqueline B. Arnold and Anastacia McCleskey.
Alums, too, of the campy Broadway fave Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the McCleskey and Arnold as Izora Armstead and Martha Wash are dynamite as Two Tons ‘O Fun, the backing group that would eventually become The Weather Girls. And yes, they do sing their signature song, and yes, it’s fantastic. While McCleskey’s chill inducing jazz-affected lyric contralto swims over the five-piece band as the underrated Izora (orchestrated and musical directed by celeb composer Alonzo Harris), Arnold explodes over the loudspeaker with her fiery operatic spinto soprano as the Queen of Clubland, Martha. Did I mention that there isn’t a better band on or off the Great White Way than those backing Wayne?
With a string of music that delves into disco, Hi-NRG, R&B, funk and electro-dance and soul, with bits of gospel thrown in for good measure, it’s refreshing to see black artists telling stories of forgotten forces of nature like Sylvester. Wayne and Bowman honor this above all else. Equal parts Hedwig and Everyday Rapture, the show never feels slight or cultivated for applause like the inert Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Tupac jukebox sing-along that shuttered almost as quickly as it opened this summer. Through the rather simple narrative, still Wayne finds moments to evoke catharsis, like his talks of the blonde love of his life who fell victim to the ongoing AIDS epidemic or recounting the time he was sexually molested by a praise leader within the walls of the House of God that lead to his running away at 16. It’s all here.
What is perhaps most startling is that Wayne and Bowman have emerged as this decade’s answer to Joe Mantello and Jon Robin Baitz, in a season that is finally giving way to actually putting a face on the black gay experience. Like Robert O’Hara’s BootyCandy or Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, these stories provide a look into the celluloid closet of the black gay Bildungsroman in a “post-racial” and “post-gay” new millennium without parading as such. And it’s about time, too. Now, let’s hope the rest of the theater world can catch up. Tick, tock.
Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical
Theatre at St. Clements
423 West 46th Street
Through October 5
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and EDGE Media Network.