This review of Chip Deffaa's musical Theater Boys at 13th Street Repertory Theater was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
"Theater Boys" - Book, Music & Lyrics by Chip Deffaa
13th Street Repertory Theater (50 West 13th Street, NYC)
Reviewed 9/28/14 at 3:00 p.m.
The world premiere engagement of Theater Boys took place at the Kaufman Theater in the summer of 2008 as part of the Sixth Annual Fresh Fruit Festival. It has now returned for a run at 13th Street Repertory Theater and although a cast album is scheduled to come out in two weeks, Chip Deffaa still introduced the musical "as a work in progress." While that may be so, the cast in this production is extraordinarily talented, the writing is crisp and funny with many references to well-known local cabaret artists, and the music is upbeat and entertaining.
The flyer for the show says, "In Theater Boys actors auditioning for a gay musical are asked to bare their souls...and a bit more. They share coming-of-age stories both comic and heartfelt." While this description is literally true, I was shocked that even in "an off, off, off, off, off Broadway" gay musical in Greenwich Village, there was no full-frontal nudity. As cast member Joris de Graaf (who played Casey) said in the talk-back, "nudity is common on stage in the Netherlands." Yet somehow, in 21st century puritanical America, full frontal nudity was intentionally avoided in a show promoted as a "gay musical" where the actors were "to bare their souls...and a bit more." As for the "coming of age stories both comic and heartfelt," the show is divided into two very distinct acts. The first act is primarily an audition for a gay musical where the sets and script are "still in the director's head" and so each of the actors tells their own story by singing about some aspect of their life in the theater or of the struggles and obsessions they have faced in their private lives. This act is a satire of the theater and the directors, auditions and actors that are a part of it. The second act is basically a flashback dealing with the first sexual experiences of the Director and Kipp, the boy who the Director "discovered" as he just got off a bus from Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada (Note: In Halq'emeylem, the language of the Sto:lo communities, chilliwack means "as far upriver as you can go before having to switch to a pole."). Then there is a desert musical finale where the cast first performs wearing bed sheets and then finishes off dancing in their underwear.
Nearly three-quarters of the musical deals with issues of sexual seduction, sexual experimentation, denial and the importance of self-labeling. It is in these areas where the show shines the most and I believe Chip Deffaa needs to make a full commitment to bringing the musical in that direction. The elements are there. The show starts off in a most promising manner. The Director, a self-described "visionary" who claims to know everything and everyone (including having known Joan of Arc), has just convinced Kipp, a young actor from Canada, to come to his 5th Floor walk-up apartment for an audition and in the first musical number suggests Kipp take off his clothes "For The Theatre." The fact that Kipp can't memorize lines or dance doesn't deter the Director. But Kipp is too resistant. Even if he were straight, he probably would have given in with all the convincing arguments the Director made. Similarly, when Nathan LaChance is suggesting hypnotism as a method of his own seduction in "Tell Me Why," Chris (the Director at age 16) takes an eternity to get the message. Timing is everything and in certain scenes the resistance goes on too long. In others, the story line moves too quickly. If Chris's friend gets horny while smoking pot and somehow convinces Chris to give him a "helping hand," we need to know the actual lines he used to successfully complete the seduction. Another example would be the need for a deeper exploration into Braden's psyche and how two "straight" friends might convince each other they were in a straight bromance instead of a gay romance (No Homo!). Perfect timing was exhibited in the scene where bad boy Reese Brock convinced Kipp to take off his white briefs on a raft in a lake because it might attract snakes. Still, even that scene seemed incomplete because we never saw any sexual interaction between the two boys, even though that was clearly Reese Brock's goal.
The very attractive and talented actors in this production captured the audience's attention resulting in a relaxing and enjoyable experience. Future stars of stage and scene are in this cast! Michael Czyz, who played Kipp, is a fresh new face making his New York City stage debut in this show. With his innocent, boy-next-door looks, he was perfectly cast for the part of a young man from Chilliwack but perhaps that is the case because Mr. Czyz "is a proud Western Canadian afflicted with OCD and UW (Ukelele Withdrawal)." Daniel Coelho, who played Nathan La Chance, is also acting in his first New York production, having previously performed with the Papermill Playhouse Show Choir in Millburn, New Jersey. I feel Mr. Coelho struck just the right balance between playing a character who was, on the one hand unseducible pledged not to have sex until marriage, and on the other hand, a boy eagerly looking for an opportunity to allow his hormones to fly free. Daniel Coelho is a very talented actor with a great future in the theater. Sam Donnenberg was excellent in the role of Reese Brock, the brooding bad-boy who was best friends with Kipp back in Chilliwack. Although his part was a small one, he made a big impression on me. Philip Louis Calabro was very charismatic in the role of Rocky Kreeger, the actor who formerly performed as a scantily-clad French maid in the fictitious show Naked Maids Dancing and was inspired by his brief interactions with columnist Liz Smith. Mr. Calabro exhibited exuberant energy and has a strong stage presence. Taylor Martin played Braden Walker, the "straight" former child star willing to appear in a gay musical as long as it involved an artistically challenging role. Mr. Martin hit a home run portraying a man willing to engage in a sexual bromance so long as no one perceived him, or the relationship, to be gay. This perspective and attitude has a long history and Mr. Martin nailed it with his performance.
The part of the Director was played by two actors. Joseph Spitale was the Director as an adult, and Andrew Lanctot, played Chris, the Director at age 16. Both actors executed their respective roles flawlessly. From a psychological viewpoint, I found it fascinating how Chip Deffaa wrote the book so as to clearly exhibit how the behavior of the Director at 16 seducing his less experienced friends continued to be reflected in the adult Director's efforts to use his position to seduce young, inexperienced actors eager to make it in the theater. The Director's sexual modus operandi is unlikely to change, which makes the ending of Theater Boys and the new relationship between the Director and Kipp one that is very unlikely to last. Joseph Spitale is a very accomplished actor who was a pleasure to watch. Andrew Lanctot has great versatility and an abundance of raw talent. I look forward to seeing more of him in the future.
Chip Deffaa, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for Theater Boys, was also the show's director. Mr. Deffaa is the author of 15 published plays and eight published books. He is an extremely talented individual. This show, Theater Boys, offers many laughs, extraordinarily actors and some toe-tapping musical numbers, many of them that deal with the moon. There was "The Moon Montage" (a medley of moon songs), "Under The Chilliwack Moon", and the finale "Under The Mellow Arabian Moon", which literally ended with the cast full-mooning the audience. Theatre Boys plays Thursday nights at 7:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through October 26, 2014. Tickets cost $25.00 for adults and $18.00 for students/senior, which you can purchase athttp://www.13thstreetrep.org/
If you are looking for a fun, upbeat show featuring some of the best actors New York theatre has to offer, then I highly recommend you see Theater Boys!