By Bob Evans
The Great Depression, prohibition, crime, prostitution, gambling, corruption and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia contributed to a decade of problems in New York City in the 1930s, but probably few knew that Burlesque and Vaudeville got tangled alongside those issues.
“The Nance,” by Douglas Carter Beane, opened to a near capacity auditorium on Saturday, Nov. 3, at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, produced by Spinning Tree Theatre. “The Nance” continues the presentation of plays that speak to the LGBTQ theme and further chronicles struggles of gay men, their history, and the social acceptance at that time. After Spinning Tree’s previous season that featured “Casa Valentina,” about men who dressed as women in the 1960s, this production logically continues the story.
In the 1930s Vaudeville was on its decline, as was Burlesque. Featured Vaudevillians adapted and moved more toward legitimate theater and Broadway or traveled west to Hollywood for the newest craze, “motion pictures.” Featured Burlesque “strippers” like Gypsy Rose Lee and fan-dancer, Sally Rand extended their careers. Comics like Jack Benny and W.C. Fields were Hollywood-bound, but lesser talents faded as the theaters closed and customers dwindled.
“The Nance” speaks to that time and the morality of NYC Mayor Fiorello La Guardia who saw Burlesque as dirty, immoral, and inappropriate to perform. Further, the mayor launched an offensive against gay men, gay society, and clandestine meeting places. Spinning Tree’s play illuminates the situation as it affects the handful of characters in “The Nance.”
According to notes from producers, gay men were classified as “sexual deviants,” but theatre patrons seemed to enjoy the flamboyant and exaggerated gestures on such characters in burlesque shows. The characters were called “nance,” “pansy,” “queer,” and other such derogatory terms. Such bits were so popular that they were included in many such shows. But to La Guardia it was not funny or to be encouraged. With the mayor’s targeting of these types of acts, the end of an era loomed. The play unveils that “drag” acts did not fall into this category for some reason and continued to be acceptable.
Central to the plot, the main character, Chauncey Miles, performs as a Burlesque character, obviously gay, and as the play develops, the audience learns Chauncey is a gay man who performs as a gay man. Other similar shows featured this gay character but more generally played by a straight man. Chauncey’s story stands out as his world fades, cracks, and crumbles around him. What starts off as comedy evolves into a serious drama about treatment of gays in the late 1930s
“The Nance” takes the audience into the life of Chauncey as the show opens at a NYC automat as Chauncey attempts to “score” with a younger man who enters the eatery. The audience peeks at how careful and secretive the meetings take place for fear of arrest. This particular meet and greet takes place after a series of raid on other known male meeting places.
As the story develops, the audience learns more and more about Chauncey; his lover, Ned; and his performing side-kick/straight-man, Efram. Brilliantly played by Andy Perkins, Timothy Michael Houston, and R.H. Wilhoit, the three central characters create an energy that grabs the audience and brings them into the story.
Perfectly cast to convey this comedy/drama to Kansas City for the first time, the trio leads you through the unfolding of the piece and tugs at the heart. Perkins especially demands attention as he navigates between Chauncey the performer and Chauncey the person. As the story develops the two ego blend as his stage persona suffers the devastation of La Guardia’s crackdown on gay men. Perkins delivers a stunning performance in his first major lead role. His Chauncey is one of the best performances of the year.
Support for Chauncey comes from his performance partner, Efram played by Wilhoit. As Efram, Wilhoit must be the voice of reason when not performing and the catalyst for Chauncey’s stage performance. Wilhoit navigates these with ease and watching him work with Perkins shows his versatility and range. While he is funny, his performance changes as the story goes from light to dark. His concern for Chauncey gives depth to the performance.
The love interest falls into the hands of KC newcomer Timothy Michael Houston whose fresh face and eager companionship usher a new perspective to Chauncey’s life. Chauncey’s one-night-stands with unknown persons comes to a screeching halt when he allows himself to indulge in affections of one singular person. His life-journey takes a new direction while his public-performance life begins to unravel. Houston could not find a better cast for his KC debut and his first production with Spinning Tree Theatre. Houston gives a solid performance and his character shines as he interacts with the other talented actors in the cast.
Also in the cast, Katie Gilchrist, Ashley Personett, and Sarah Montoya force the audience to pay attention to them as the burlesque queens of the Irving Theatre (the venue where they perform). The ladies are fun to watch and all show strong stage presence with each entrance. Victoria Barbee rounds out the cast, but the script only allows her an occasional line as set changes occur and costume racks are moved into place with scene changes.
Besides strong casting, Spinning Tree’s production staff always creates productions with thoughtful approach to details. “The Nance” follows that established pattern. Directing for “The Nance” is done by Michael Grayman-Parkhurst and Nicole Marie Green. The production team includes: Nicole Jaja, lighting design; Shannon Smith-Regnier, costume design; Robert Crone, scenic design; Jeff Eubank, sound design; Gary Green, music coordinator; Eric Palmquist, properties design; T. J. Burton, stage manager; Victoria Barbee, assistant stage manager; Warren Deckert, assistant lighting designer and JOB technical director; Drew Hafling, assistant scenic designer; Ryan Tucker, house manager; Addison Landes and Meghan Reeb, production assistants; Derrick Weishaar, graphic designer; J. Robert Schraeder, photographer; Sarah Bartley volunteer coordinator. Music for “The Nance” was performed by Gary Green, piano; and Brandon Wilkins, saxophone.
“The Nance” continues at the Just Off Broadway Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri though Nov. 18. For ticketing and more information, go to the Spinning Tree Theatre website. There you will see dates and times of performances as well as a link to the box office.
Tags: The Nance, Spinning Tree Theatre, Just Off Broadway Theatre, Kansas City Theatre, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts and Entertainment