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Fabulousnessask any self-respecting queeris both a subjective measure and a universal constant, an ineffable quality that’s immediately identifiable in the wildand impossible to describe to anyone who’s never wandered off the split-level ranch. Those who protest the inherent inconsistency of the concept may have begun to grasp the nature of gayness. (Call me if anyone figures it out completely.)
Measured against that impossible standard, Paul Rudnick’s bitchysweet Biblical comedy, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, must necessarily both succeed and fail. Certainly its tone is fabulous, a blend of light camp and brisk situational comedy that finds as much humor in a character’s vocal inflection as in the content of the story. Much of that content achieves fabulousness, too: It involves the adventures of Adam and Steve, the world’s first couple, who pursue a range of increasingly unlikely domestic adventures in Eden and afterward, accompanied by a pair of Sapphic sidekicks, Jane and Mabel. There are various subsidiary characters, including a paralyzed lesbian rabbi and a martini-dry WASP in a Santa suit, and there’s a black female stage manager who may or may not be God, but who certainly directs the proceedings; her work includes the creation of the world, which takes place to the remixed tune of Also Sprach Zarathustra (which works here the way it didn’t work in Oscar and Speranza several weeks back). Certainly, the ingredients for fabulousness are in place.
Rudnick (Jeffrey, In & Out) is an inventive plotter, and no one in the business has a better ear for one-liners. Consider, if nothing else, the sexually charged moment in which Mabel crosses paths with a lioness and a sow in hot-pink latex, both of whom want to liven up the long nights on Noah’s Ark with a little three-way interspecies frolic; Rudnick punctuates the scene with an especially apt marketing slogan, achieving camp comedy, postmodern irony, and trademark infringement all in one economical gesture. Or giggle along as the four principals, captured by spear-toting Amazons who flirt with Jane and Mabel, confront a feygele Pharoah who boasts about his nickname (“The Mouth of the Nile”) and has apparently devoted a great deal of personal attention to the rearing of Moses, if you know what I mean.
It’s by turns trashy and tacky and tastelessly funnyhowl-out-loud funnybut somehow the totality of Most Fabulous doesn’t quite equal fabulousness, and it doesn’t seem to be Source Theatre’s economically designed production that’s wanting. More likely, the trouble is the territory Rudnick has picked to frolic in: the gray area between well-meaning secular humanism and a kind of gentle, unthreatening, multiculti ecumenifaith, as defined and illuminated by the gay experience. (Everyone shudder together now.) He’s looking foror asking the audience to look forreasons to believe in an age that challenges all belief.
It’s restless, inquisitive Adamnote the shifting of responsibility for the Fallwho carries that dramatic burden, asking gentle questions about what got things started, what made the wonder around him. Ty Hreben, winsome and slightly goofy, makes a slightly softer Adam than you might expect from a quick read of the script, but he’s undeniably appealing; Jennifer Phillips makes the spacey Mabel his similarly curious, even more earnest counterpart, another pea in a paradisical pod that begins to chafe all too soon. Ian LeValley’s Steve and Kerri Rambow’s deliciously butch Janeshe wears clothes not from Tree-of-Knowledge shame but because the pockets are usefulare their level-headed, prove-it-to-me foils, and both of them are terrific.
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The trouble, of course, is that questions of faith are always answered with more questionsand although that makes for terrific bouts of philosophy, it’s not much of a prescription for theater. Most Fabulous grows distinctly less fabulous after intermission, when the fresh comic territory of queers in paradise (watch Adam and Steve discover “soft face-hole things,” along with their myriad uses) cedes the stage to the well-trafficked terrain of homos in New York, circa 1990-something, as Christmas approaches and the birth of Jane and Mabel’s baby signals some kind of messianic adventor at least the flowering of some kind of hope for an age that’s all but given up on the possibility.
It’s not quite a cliché that AIDS becomes part of the storyto dismiss the plague’s relevance in a gay writer’s work is to play into the creeping complacency of this decadebut the tragi-heroic tone Rudnick applies in the last two or three scenes does border on the formulaic. The juxtaposition of Steve’s declining health and the infant’s arrival is a birth/death trade-off as old as Aeschylus.
Of course, the ancients wouldn’t have joked about naming the baby Satan, as Jane suggests mid-contraction. It’s that consistent overlay of oh-so-contemporary attitude that prevents the latter half of the play from becoming sentimentally unbearable, and director Jeff Keenan wisely tugs his actors back to toe a carefully cynical line each time the script pulls them in the direction of sap. Of the supporting cast, it’s probably Joe Sampson, who plays both the jaded WASP and the hypersexed Pharoah, who does the most to help.
There is, to be fair, a very thin, almost indistinguishable sense that Rudnick has something serious to say heresomething that may even be worth hearing. But it’s hard to listenhe’s much less adept at broken than at brittle, and naked vulnerability, after all, isn’t the least bit fabulous. Keenan’s approach is probably the right one: Play up the comedy and hope the profound bits get lost in the laughter.
The profundity of Fosse, if there is any, lies in the way it proves that yes, it is indeed possible to do well what others have repeatedly attempted as part of the Academy Awards ceremony.
There’s a strange and sensual moment about three-quarters of the way through the program, a number of about three minutes of simmering sexual energy expressed in a vaguely flamenco way. Once it dawns that there’s something Western, too, in the way the three dancers are moving, something cowboyish about the silver-buckled belts that hang low around their waists, a quick check in the playbill reveals that the number is the late Bob Fosse’s interpretation of the theme from Cool Hand Lukea dance created for a Bob Hope special back in the days when “variety show” wasn’t a slur.
It’s pretty bracing stuff, Fosse’s worktaunting and chilly, sex-charged, irredeemably ironic and unequivocally in your face. Whores drape themselves over a rail in the classic “Big Spender” number from Sweet Charity; a bevy of impossibly beautiful, imposingly cold-eyed creatures wave a sneering farewell in “Bye Bye Blackbird,” harboring not even the faintest hint of remorse at parting.
But the temptation, in the wake of Broadway’s fantastically successful Chicago revival, is to remember the triple-threat dancer/director/choreographer, who imposed his signature sensibility on shows from Pippin to Damn Yankees to Chicago to The Pajama Game, as not much more than a series of hands carefully spread, of black-clad bodies rigidly held and precariously inclined, of hips and asses thrust aggressively against an insistent beat and fingers pinched just so against thumbs on the rim of a bowler hat. The truth of which Fosse reminds us, the fact that roots all his icy remove in a kind of humanity (however jaded), is that every stylized move has its genesis in some ordinary gesturea nebbishy shrug, a wanton’s walk, the sly grope of an eager man in a bar. Fosse’s genius was to find in those movements the beginnings of a dance vocabulary, to infuse them with his distinctly distanced attitude, and to wed the whole package to the athleticism and power of ballet and jazz and swingand on and on.
Fosse is a predictably stylish affair, and if nothing else it provesin a high-spirited, high-concept number called “Dancin’ Man”that its namesake’s signature moves work just as well in buttoned-up seersucker as they do in severest black. And as if to prove sartorial flexibility a mere starting point, the sequence puts the structures and rhythms of an old-fashioned tap number quite literally in the white-gloved hands of the ensemble, which pulls the conceit off with considerable panache.
There’s a short and lovely sequence, too, involving three pairs of dancerstwo women, two men, and one mixed couplesimultaneously moving through an intricate series of intertwined positions. It’s not quite as fluid as a balletic pas de deux, but it has that power; it’s not quite as studied as a tableau vivant, but it has that majestic air.
The one odd moment is an uncharacteristically sentimental staging of “Mr. Bojangles,” another piece that explicitly takes dance as its topic. Maybe, when you’re a cynic on the order of Bob Fosse, the last subject you can approach with reverence is your own. CP