With Bells On
Take a holiday classic loved by all, add a few star turns and more than a whiff of camp, don your gay apparel and get set to make some memories: That is the aim of It's a Fabulous Life!, David Sexton and Albert Evans's loose and merry musical adaptation of Frank Capra's bittersweet It's A Wonderful Life. It' s a madcap pageant, and it works.
It is also, for all its excellent beefcake and over-the-top hilarity, improbably moving. Here is a new musical about real family values -- everyone's families, not just those of straight Republicans. Here also is a celebration of our taking care of each other, loving each other, loving life. While Capra's picture presented us with a man on the verge of suicide who by the end is made to see how much his life means to everyone around him, Sexton's play goes one sweeter with a gay hero so depressed at Christmastime that he wishes he had never been born gay. With the help of an angel, he gets his wish. But, by the close of Act Two, he comes to accept himself and his world in a spirit of generosity and warmth that drenches the whole affair and sends audiences home with a smile.
The piece began life as an extended skit for the South Beach Gay Men's Chorus, grew into an ambitious musical last season in Coral Gables, and has now been spruced up with intelligent direction by Robert Johanson, outrageous costumes by Estella Vroncovich, and delicious leading performances by E. L. Losada, Kenny Calabria, Ezequiel Hernandez, Andy Rogow and David Leddick. The songs are catchy, clever and fun. It is at the newly spiffied Byron Carlyle Theater in Miami Beach, then next week it moves to the Amaturo Theater of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. It should have a long life beyond that, frankly: with just a little editing and a tad more polish, It's A Fabulous Life! could become a gay Christmas classic.
As it is, the play's improbable mix of old Hollywood and queer avant-garde, of retro charm and postmod irony, even of both good and appalling acting, has a way of falling into place miraculously by the end. Of course today's South Beach is a long way from Capra's Bedford Falls in 1946. And while the stress of the holidays may be quite enough to give anyone vulnerable the blues, the gay hero of It's A Fabulous Life! is facing troubles Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey never dreamed of in It's A Wonderful Life: Four more years of Dubya, for starters, with fundamentalist bigots on the rise, yahoos baying for blood in the halls of Congress and right-wing ayatollahs ready to pounce and crush any semblance of diversity, tolerance and hope. Add to that the everyday quirks of life that our Everyman must face, plus a heavy dose of backstage intrigues and some desperate drama queens, and the holidays ahead seem bleak indeed. Yet, against all odds and just like Capra's picture, Sexton's play is very much about hope. It is a life-affirming, mood-brightening, in-your-face-liberal and, yes, pretty fabulous affair. That it happens to be very entertaining makes it a fabulous Christmas gift.
Losada plays Joe, a young playwright whose work includes such gems as the gay Restoration comedy She Shtoops to Conquer as well as his current musical project, Randolph the Rainbow Reindeer. His family seems not to have come to terms with his being gay and have told him not to come home for Christmas. His hot boyfriend Luis, played by Ezequiel Hernandez, doesn't quite understand him. Rehearsals for his play are not going well, what with an opening in days and an amateur cast in revolt. By the time an angel named Arthur answers his prayer and makes him straight, one can almost sympathize with Joe's plight.
True, the piece is not perfect. Act One especially still wants tightening: It takes too long to get to the parallels with the movie's premise, and all the subplots about the Randolph the Rainbow Reindeer cast could be resolved with an editor's blue pencil. Still, the songs are always catchy and often stirring. The script is peppered -- even overspiced -- with show-biz references to everything from 42nd Street and Gypsy to Mommy Dearest and Sunset Boulevard as well as to the venerable Capra picture. But it is also written from the heart. The camp humor gets the camp treatment, but there is real pathos when the script hits home. Losada and Hernandez make the most of Joe and Luis's relationship, musically and dramatically. Andy Rogow is genuinely touching as the older stage director. Perhaps sweetest of all is the surprise of Calabria, best known locally as the drag television personality Daisy Deadpetals, as both Carlo and Miss Carlotta. With the assurance of a young Charles Busch, and looking not a little like Christina Applegate on a very good day, Calabria touches the heart in his patter, soars with the cast through the rousing Act Two showstopper "It's A Fabulous Christmas" and sets up the emotional tsunami of the finale, "God Bless the Road Less Traveled." In moments like that, It's A Fabulous Life! becomes as timeless as It's a Wonderful Life. And it's a lot funnier.
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