In the Nude for Love
If nothing else, Naked Boys Singing! lives up to the hype of its title. The cast members are naked, they are male, and they sing. In fact they sing rather well. That's a good thing, since the revue, already a hit at the Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles (another production is due to open off-Broadway this week), comprises more than a dozen songs, each performed in the buff, some featuring silly hats and occasional bits of clothing. As the lyrics of the opening number, "Gratuitous Nudity," put it: "Tonight you won't wonder/What's under our underwear."
Indeed you won't. You may have seen some of these performers before, but chances are you haven't seen them like this. Like what? You might remember Bill Perlach in the role of Marty in the popular show Meet Me at the Pitkin, also at the Drama Center. But can you imagine him wearing only a bow tie and carrying a big bucket, in the service of a song called "The Naked Maid"? And while Jeffery Taylor's bio notes that he appeared shirtless in Best Little Whorehouse and played a red-vinyl-bikini-clad soldier in Jesus Christ Superstar, this show apparently constitutes his first public performance in his birthday suit.
By now you're probably wondering, Just what is it like to sit through two hours of entertainment by buck-naked men? Forget any comparison to Chippendales or gay go-go bars. The notion of a houseboy who cleans in his birthday suit is about as risqué as Naked Boys Singing! ever gets. Troupers were cast for their voices primarily and for their, uh, other aspects secondly. And though the show takes on topics such as masturbation, voyeurism, and bad puns, it's far tamer than almost anything you can see or hear on the streets of South Beach in broad daylight. Neither campy nor political, it's a show that gay men with middle-of-the-road tastes and horny housewives alike can sit back in their seats and enjoy without making fools of themselves.
One song, "Members Only," makes a Hallelujah Chorus-type medley out of synonyms for penis. Another comments on gay men's obsession with going to the gym. Beyond the superficial level, however, you can't really call Naked Boys Singing! a gay show any more than you can call loneliness, sexual attraction, or concern with one's body gay issues. Of course, most heterosexual revues wouldn't necessarily include an ode to gay icon Robert Mitchum, particularly one featuring a series of near rhymes with the star's name (bitchin', twitchin'), as well as a plea to return to the time before ab implants and collagen injections.
Only two or three songs -- and one hilarious production number -- are clever enough to hold their own. "Bliss" features the appealing Jeffery Taylor as a baby at a bris ceremony. He laments in song the idea that his manhood is the subject of worship for a few brief minutes before his circumcision yet will almost never be mentioned in polite company again. The effervescent Taylor also shines in "Perky Little Porn Star," a spirited song with a rare bit of memorable lyrics. "I'm a perky little porn star from Skokie, Illinois," Taylor confesses, adding that his job satisfaction varies, "depending on the ratio/Of schtupping to fellatio."
Think that's naughty? Then you'll love "Jack's Song," an over-the-top, nattily choreographed bit of mischief in which three hard-working gents -- a policeman, a construction worker, and a doctor -- confess to their favorite form of stress reduction. "I beat my meat," they sing in chorus, while indulging in suggestive yet actually PG-rated antics such as pounding on steaks with mallets, while dressed in chefs' hats. This handful of comic numbers has more personality than the soulful "Window to Window," a song about falling in love and lust with someone seen at a window. It showcases Salvador Navarro's sweet voice but doesn't stand out from dozens of other love songs in other shows.
Indeed, Naked Boys Singing! seems less like a unified revue and more like a bunch of songs thrown together to be performed in the nude. "Nothin' but the Radio On," a catchy country and western-style number celebrates nakedness, including the famous centerfold shots of Marilyn Monroe and Burt Reynolds, but doesn't do much with the idea. "Fight the Urge" is a cute little nothing about the embarrassments of becoming aroused in public. ("It's rude to point," says one performer to his penis.)
"The Entertainer," on the other hand, is a generic number about the artificial relationship between the performer -- here inexplicably dressed as a hobo -- and his audience. It doesn't earn its place in this show, even though Mark Whittington, who sings it, has a fine voice. One song, "Kris, Look What You've Missed," appears to be a ballad sung by a man to his former lover, but whether that lover has died from AIDS or simply left the relationship is not clear. (Staging the song as a scene in which the singer dresses himself in a somber business suit is merely confusing.)
There is no vocal standout in the cast, which means that ensemble numbers are stronger than solos. On the small stage at the Drama Center, co-producer Gary Waldman directs with a feel for humor, intimacy, and good sightlines. Pianist Eric Alsford, who is also the show's musical director, provides lively and heartfelt accompaniment, and choreographer Robert Craig Dawson moves his troupers -- not one of them a born dancer -- around the stage in clever ways. As for the show itself, it may be built on a gimmick, but it certainly has the bare necessities to be entertaining even when the singing falters.
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