Are you now or have you ever been a homosexual?

Donnie Lockwood, Brent Alan Burington, Adam Latek, Mark P. Schwamberger and David Vargo (from left) in The Temperamentals (Evolution Theatre Company photo)
Donnie Lockwood, Brent Alan Burington, Adam Latek, Mark P. Schwamberger and David Vargo (from left) in The Temperamentals (Evolution Theatre Company photo)

By Richard Ades

If you’re like most people, you think America’s gay rights movement began with New York’s 1969 Stonewall rebellion.

Well, it did and it didn’t. The uprising was a prime catalyst, but a few brave souls were already fighting anti-gay discrimination nearly two decades earlier. Their efforts are the subject of Jon Marans’s The Temperamentals.

The play is set in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, a red-baiting era when homosexuals are treated with as much suspicion as communists. And it so happens that the main protagonists, Harry Hay (Brent Alan Burington) and Rudi Gernreich (Adam Greenbaum Latek), are both.

Though outwardly more conservative than Rudi, Harry is the one who seems determined to challenge the status quo.

Taking advantage of costume designer Rudi’s connections, he approaches Hollywood bigwigs such as Vincente Minnelli (David Allen Vargo) and asks them to sign a manifesto he’s drawn up on the rights of “temperamentals” (the euphemistic 1950s term for homosexuals). Not surprisingly, Minnelli and others are afraid to have anything to do with the document.

Eventually, Harry and Rudi do gather a tiny group of like-minded men and found the Mattachine Society, an organization devoted to the cause of equality. However, they accomplish little until Dale (Donnie Lockwood) is arrested on the trumped-up charge of soliciting sex from an undercover cop.

Such ruses are common in these pre-enlightened times, as gay men are so desperate to keep their sexual identity a secret that they willingly pay a hefty fine to make the charge go away. But when Dale says he can’t afford to take that route, Harry suggests a bold alternative: Admit his homosexuality while declaring his innocence. Members of the jury will be so impressed by his brave honesty, Harry reasons, that they’ll have to believe him.

In a perfect world, such a courageous act would inspire more courageous acts, all of which would lead to the kind of acceptance the Mattachine Society was seeking. But our world isn’t perfect, and it was even less so in the 1950s. Thus, The Temperamentals is the story of a movement that proves to be ahead of its time.

Because it remains true to history, with its mix of triumphs and disappointments, the play lacks an overall dramatic arc. But it makes up for it by documenting the huge barriers early gay activists faced. And not all the barriers were external; a big first step was learning how to communicate with each other about their shared heartaches and frustrations.

Director Douglas Whaley helps us understand these struggles by drawing relatable performances out of his cast. Burington anchors the production as the abrasive, impatient Hay, while Latek offers contrast as the more diplomatic Rudi. Besides Lockwood’s Dale, other founding members of the Mattachine Society are Chuck (Vargo) and Bob (Mark Phillips Schwamberger).

In addition to their central roles, all of the actors except for Burington play multiple supporting roles, both men and women. For the most part, they rise to the multitasking occasion.

Like Evolution Theatre Company’s spring production of Yank! The Musical, The Temperamentals is an imperfect but engrossing work that offers insights into gay life in the mid-20th century. That makes it invaluable.

Evolution Theatre Company will present The Temperamentals through July 18 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20, $15 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

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WWII musical is traditional in every way but one

The cast of Yank! The Musical (photo by Jerri Shafer)
The cast of Yank! The Musical (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

Wartime romance is complicated. When it’s depicted on the stage, it’s also, often, tuneful.

Think South Pacific. Or The Sound of Music. Or Yank! The Musical.

The last may be less well-known than the other two, but it focuses on a type of romance that’s seldom addressed in mainstream entertainment: the same-sex kind.

With a book and lyrics by David Zellnik and music by Joseph Zellnik, it follows the adventures of Stu, a young man who joins the Army during World War II. Stu tries his best to fit in with the ragtag group of guys he trains with, but he can’t help noticing that he stands out. One clue is that he doesn’t share the others’ lascivious fascination with pinup photos of Betty Grable.

The other soldiers seem to sense Stu’s nonconforming nature and kid him mercilessly—or they would if a nice guy named Mitch didn’t stop them. Stu is grateful, but it turns out his feelings for Mitch go far beyond that. One night, when the squad is finally on its way to the war, he acts on those feelings, setting off on a dangerous sequence of events.

Beyond its gay theme, Yank! The Musical is pretty traditional. Stu and Mitch’s squad is geographically and ethnically diverse, just like squads always are in wartime fiction. The songs are pleasant but unmemorable, sounding much like any number of vintage romantic ballads.

Somehow, though, none of this matters. To the contrary, it seems fitting that a gay love story is treated much like its “straight” predecessors. It underscores the fact that gay Americans were fighting for their country right along with the heterosexuals usually depicted in wartime musicals.

Evolution Theatre’s production tells Stu’s story well, thanks to Jimmy Bohr’s beautiful direction and cast of actors who act and sing with equal skill.

Nick Hardin is conflicted but courageous as Stu; William Macke is kind but even more conflicted as Mitch. Other major players include choreographer Brent Fabian as Artie Goldberg and Jesika Siler Lehner as a bevy of show-biz crooners and assorted other women.

Though the musical tackles the serious issue of discrimination against gay soldiers, it doesn’t always do it in a serious way. Particularly funny is the trio of steno-pool workers (Jeb Bigelow, Doug Joseph and Scott Clay) who express their otherness by taking on the characters of Southern belles from Gone With the Wind. Add the lighthearted songs and dance numbers, and you have a show that’s far more pleasant than you’d expect.

Shane Cinal’s scenic design is simple, leaning heavily on patriotic colors, and is bolstered by Nitz (Curtis) Brown’s dramatic lighting. Jason Guthrie’s costumes are similarly simple but place the action in the proper era.

Led by Michael L. Medvidik, the onstage band plays with spirit, even if it hits the occasional sour note. The vocal harmonizing also has its pitchy moments, though the singers do fine when they’re on their own.

A final caveat is that the musical goes on longer that it really needs to, thanks to extraneous numbers like the silly Your Squad Is Your Squad. But the story is so overdue, and it’s told in such a good-natured manner, that you probably won’t mind at all.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Yank! The Musical through June 6 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

On his way to writing ‘Rent’…

Appearing in tick, tick…Boom! are (from left) Christopher Storer as Michael, Jonathan Collura as Jon and Kaitlin Descutner as Susan (photo by Zach Hartley)
Appearing in tick, tick…Boom! are (from left) Christopher Storer as Michael, Jonathan Collura as Jon and Kaitlin Descutner as Susan (photo by Zach Hartley)

By Richard Ades

If you’re a fan of Rent or of rock-based musical theater in general, you’ll want to see tick, tick…Boom! The 1990 work is Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical take on his struggle to establish himself as a composer and lyricist.

If you’re not a fan of either Rent or rock-based musical theater, the show is less of a must-see, but it remains tuneful and pleasant enough to be worthwhile.

Of course, the $64,000 question with any locally produced musical is: Does the cast have enough vocal chops to carry it off? Because, let’s face it, that’s not something you can take for granted.

Happily, though, the answer is a resounding yes. Director Zach Hartley has found three performers who sing like pitch-perfect larks. They also have acting chops, though that’s less of a consideration in a show whose appeal is more historical than dramatic.

Jonathan Collura is personable as Jon, a New York composer who’s sweating his way toward both his 30th birthday and a workshop performance of his latest musical. Kaitlin Descutner is equally appealing as his dancer/girlfriend, Susan, who supplies comfort and support when she’s not kvetching about her desire to live in a less-urban environment.

It would nice if Christopher Storer provided a more grounded portrayal of Michael, Jon’s Bimmer-driving roommate. That might make a last-minute revelation about the character seem less gratuitous. But Storer excels—as does Descutner—in colorful secondary roles.

As for the songs, they range from the lightweight Green Dress to the clever Sunday, a trio that reflects Jon’s (and Larson’s) reverence for Stephen Sondheim. Also Sondheim-like is the flashy Come to Your Senses, which gives Descutner a chance to show off her vocal power.

For the most part, the tunes come in flavors of rock, which Larson helped to introduce to musical theater. Whatever their genre, an onstage band led by musical director Hillary Billups provides stalwart support.

Truthfully, as a piece of theater, tick, tick…Boom! is less than overwhelming. But as a piece of theatrical history, it’s a gem.

Evolution Theatre Company will present tick, tick…Boom! through Aug. 17 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $20-$25, $15 for students and seniors. 614-223-1124, 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.