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When the music in a musical is not especially musical, the musical had better be a hell of a play. And The Harvey Milk Show isn’t.
Instead, this all-singing, all-dancing stage bio of the nation’s first out gay elected official is a kind of well-meaning but one-dimensional hagiography, a thing of bland dialogue, thin characterizations, oppressively banal lyric-writing, and indifferent tunesmithing, so determined to sell its martyred main character as a hero that even energetic performances and relatively stylish production values can’t quite spark it up.
At least there are those performances and production values. At Source, the ever-resourceful Tony Cisek gives the show’s colorful cast of misfits, malcontents, and misanthropes a three-level ramped playing area to fret, strut, shimmy, and shake their assorted things upon, and Annie Kennedy has assembled a gleefully gaudy assortment of ’70s-era costumes, from the protagonist’s relatively utilitarian suits (complete with hideous polyester ties) to a set of five eye-poppingly fantastical fruit-cocktail getups (complete with hysterical grape-cluster codpieces) for a merrily lewd dance number that manages at once to send up anti-gay orange-juice queen Anita Bryant and pay way-over-the-top homage to Busby Berkeley.
The actors on the stage and in the costumes, moreover, keep their wits more or less about them throughout, even during the inevitable gay-bashing ballet (I kid you not) and the unfortunately saccharine candlelight chorale that follows Milk’s assassination at the hands of a fellow politico. Christopher Flint plays both a bigoted landlord and a sinister, allegorical Svengali with panache and solid vocalism; Steven Cupo brings a kind of caffeinated intensity to the title role, even if he doesn’t always seem to know what to do with his hands; Kit Halliday gives an appealing if not entirely polished performance as Milk’s urban-cowboy lover; and Lisa Marie Cline makes his sister a poised, uncomplicatedly sweet character (she sings well, too). There are occasional excesses that director Ron O’Leary might have smoothed out, but none seem particularly egregious.
The chorus, which is constantly popping up to sing Patrick Hutchinson’s undistinguished ditties about pooper scoopers and San Francisco mornings and determination in the face of prejudice, is generally fine. Jeff Lofton (in a screamingly funny pansy-print halter top and oversize smiley-face pendant), Ron Curameng, and Tracie Nicole Thoms are standouts for their unflagging bounce; vocally, Thoms and Bernie Alston steal the focus on several occasions with their bright, clear sopranos.
But Harvey Milk was a more fascinating, much more complex man than writer Dan Pruitt lets on. He was an idealist who got elected by being politically realistic, building bridges and cutting deals with various unions and ethnic associations. He was a former Wall Streeter who chucked it to run a camera shop, an opera queen comfortable with gutter language but uncomfortable with gutter political tactics. He was devoted to his lover, though their arrangement was nonmonogamous (something this show obscures in favor of an almost Norman Rockwellish picture of the relationship). He was an underdogand an underdogs’ championwho could be ruthless, abrasive, and unforgiving when it suited him. The Harvey Milk Show only hints at the levels and layers of his character.
And if it doesn’t quite capture Milk’s many facets, it presents his onetime political ally and eventual murderer, a veteran and ex-cop named Dan White, as a complete caricature, an inert, one-dimensional dimwit, the embodiment of all prejudice, and possibly a repressed homo. (There’s even a gratuitous striptease, which I have to admit turns out to be kind of a guilty pleasure with Stephen Lejnar in the part.) Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s recent opera on Milk’s life took the same man and made him multifaceted, convincingly tormented, a hard worker still marching to a tune that had stopped playing, bitter at a world that had changed its value system without warning or apology. Giving White his humanity didn’t do anything to allay the horror of his crime, but watching his transformation into a monster deepened the story’s tragic resonance.
There’s not much of that in The Harvey Milk Show, which in the end comes off as a vaguely preachy blend of civics lesson and sensitivity seminar. Everyone connected with itthe subjects and the Source castdeserves better.CP