Douglas Carter Beane
|P.A. Cooley as the "Nance"|
Strippers in sparkling pasties wearing little more than fans or balloons, corny jokes and skits that draw laughs and moans even on the umpteenth hearing, short ditties sung bawdily and badly (on purpose), and a flaming and always funny queenie guy called the “Nance” are the basic ‘musts’ for any 1930s, New York, burlesque show. These same ingredients and many more parade in rapid succession across the spotlighted, red-curtained stage at New Conservatory Theatre Center in the spirited regional premiere of Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance. Not only do we get to relive a bygone era of Broadway’s black sheep but wildly popular Burlesque cousin, we enter the clandestine and often dangerous, ‘30s world of love between men. The Nance offers plenty of staged fun and frolic; but it also goes behind the curtain to unveil a piece of gay history that is gripping, heartwarming, and ultimately heartbreaking.
Set in the waning days of burlesque when a reform-minded, vote-hungry Mayor LaGuardia sets out to shutter once and for all these bosom-bearing, pansy-drawing dens of iniquity, the play opens as the starring “Nance” of Irving Place Theatre stops by an automat not for just a piece of pie, but for a hopeful pick-up. Using coded signs of a hat on chair when ‘not interested’ and employing when ‘totally interested’ suggestive conversation subtly directed to the cute guy at the next table, Chauncey meets newcomer and nervous Ned, a married guy from upstate who has left his wife to satisfy his inside gnawing for something different. Their subsequent dance of words and quick side-glances begins in the automat, ends up in Chauncey’s Greenwich apartment, and leads -- after much sashaying on Chauncey’s part -- to a budding relationship. Back at the theatre, an actor’s departure leaves a hole that jobless Ned awkwardly but successfully fills as he becomes the ‘straight man’ to Chauncey’s flamboyant “Nance.” The two become a couple accepted and loved by the small troupe of three strippers (Sylvie, Joan, and Carmen) and their leading song-and-dance man and manager (Efram). But with LaGuardia’s Inspector Paul Moss prowling theatres ready to raid as soon as any outward sign of homosexual behavior occurs and with Chancey’s defiant nature and huge drive to go, no matter the risk, for the laugh and the kiss, the inevitable showdown occurs.
P.A. Cooley is brilliant as the comedic but complex Chauncey. He sparkles in tip-toed prances and swaying hips as he flawlessly moves through classic burlesque routines that have since been repeated for decades on movie and TV screens (e.g., “Meet me round the corner, in a half an hour” and “Niagara Falls, slowly I turn …”). His eyes light up as his Chauncey figures out another naughty way to get guffaws from the audience; and his voice travels to the highest, squeakiest octaves as he says over and again the Nance’s signature, “Hi, simply hi.” But this paragon of prissiness happens also to be a staunch Republican and supporter of the very man who is out to close him down (and even put him in jail). P.A. Cooley masterfully uncloaks the more troubling, puzzling aspects of Chauncey that border on self-hate of his sexual self. His switches from the always joking, never-serious buffoon to a narrow-minded, archconservative are stark and believable. These split aspects merge in a climatic spotlight when he performs in drag (which as a Nance he sees as demeaning) a self-revealing song that is at first funny, then bitingly bitter, and finally grief-filled. Taking the role that won many nominations and awards for Nathan Lane on Broadway, P.A. Cooley crafts his own stunning Chauncey that leaves his audience both in sheer delight and in deep sadness.
Nathanael Card’s Ned begins as a shy but determined boy who follows Chauncey home like a lost, love-seeking puppy but who soon graduates into an outgoing, affable man whose big, adoring eyes melt even Chauncey’s hesitant heart. This Ned is a hilarious stitch his first time on stage with his frozen half-smile, locked stare at the bright lights, and tightly clinched grips on his pleated pants. He transforms in front of us into a confident performer in his own rights and a man showing in looks and demeanor more comfort with his sexuality than Chauncey will ever have.
The three women and one man sharing the stage and story with Messieurs Cooley and Card are each and all wonderfully cast for both the quirky and the serious sides of their parts. Shay Oglesby-Smith is the Commie-leaning, fiery, redhead Sylvie who knows how to belt a bawdy tune and how to push every button in her beloved, right-leaning friend Chauncey. Ms. Oglesby-Smith is stellar as a street rabble-rouser and stage slinger of hips and puns who always shows a heart of gold backstage with her friends. Courtney Hatcher is the ditsy and sexy Joan who commands the stage in a half-man, half-woman skit where her one half seduces and makes love to the other half. Mia Romero plays a hot-blooded and haughty Latin who appears at first hard as nails but softens over time into one more loving member of this sorted, stage family. Rounding out the troupe is the multi-talented Brian Herndon as manager and lead man Efram. On the Irving Place stage, he MC’s and solos with a frisky and confident air; and he partners to his stooges with just the right straight-laced ploys and prods. As the worried manager and friend to Chauncey, his Efram models in a genuine, believable manner what it means to learn how to accept someone very different from himself.
The crowning touches on this small-stage version of the recent Broadway hit are the set, costumes, sound and, lighting as well as the rarely-miss-a-beat direction by Dennis Lickteig. Kuo-Hao Lo’s sets move with relative ease between Burlesque stage with lights and glitter, backstage dressing area with live performances going on in the background, automat cafe, and Chauncey’s sparse but clearly-the-home-of-a-Nance apartment. Costumes that range from g-strings and pasties of all sorts to colorful stage dresses with all the frills and funny froufrou’s needed to wow and howl an audience to just the right daisies and suits for the well-dressed Nance are no problem for Jorge Hernandez. The original music and musical direction of the incredible Srumbley Koldwyn, the sound design of James Ard for just the right ‘pops’ and ‘whistles’ in all the skits, and the spot-on lighting of Christian V. Mejia ensure the Burlesque stage comes to full life in this New Conservatory production. Producing The Nance in the small, intimate theater also allows the packed-with-puns-and-pokes script of Douglas Carter Beane absolutely to pop and hit home.
All in all, The Nance is a lesson in the histories of burlesque and of the emerging struggles and loves of gays. It is taught through enormously silly and fun skits, jokes, and pranks and through touching and troubling relationships that tug on heartstrings. The Nance is a show not to be missed before its final curtain draw at the New Conservatory Theatre.
Rating: 5 E’s
The Nance continues on the Ed Decker stage at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through November 1, 2015. Tickets are available at http://www.nctcsf.org/2015-16-season/the-nance or by calling the box office 415-861-8972.