Cross-dress for success

In today’s Wall Street Journal I review the last three shows of the 2013-14 Broadway season, Casa Valentina, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Cabaret. Here’s an excerpt.
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Broadway’s new motto is “All Transvestism, All the Time!” In addition to “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” “Kinky Boots” and “Matilda,” three more shows in which cross-dressing figures prominently have just opened on the Great Sequined Way. Topping the list is “Casa Valentina,” a history play by Harvey Fierstein about the Chevalier d’Eon Resort, a now-defunct Catskills hideaway (yes, it really existed) that catered to straight men who liked to dress up as women.
Casa4.jpgIt’s been a long time since Mr. Fierstein, who now specializes in musical-comedy books, wrote a play, and longer still since he wrote a successful one. Given the subject matter of “Kinky Boots,” his most recent effort, and “Torch Song Trilogy,” the 1982 play about a drag queen that made him kind-of-sort-of famous, it would seem at first glance that he’s well and truly stuck in a velvet-and-tulle rut. But “Casa Valentina” ends up being a lot more interesting than it looks at first glance, for certain of the guests at the Chevalier d’Eon, though they all claim not to be gay, turn out on closer inspection to be something other than straight–a revelation that transforms what started out as a comedy into a full-blown tragedy.
Mr. Fierstein isn’t able to set a clear tone for “Casa Valentina,” which lurches awkwardly from take-my-wife-please one-liners to stilted sermonizing to blackmail-powered melodrama. Nor has he figured out how to bring the play to a convincing close, instead letting it trail off irresolutely. But it’s never boring…
Sixteen years ago, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a 90-minute musical monologue by a gender-bent East German punk rocker with an iatrogenic microphallus (you can look it up), was an in-your-face piece of cutting-edge downtown theater. Now it’s a period piece, the proof of which is that it has finally opened uptown in a commercial revival that features Neil Patrick Harris, an openly gay, universally liked network sitcom star.
Mr. Harris’ winsome drag act reminded me of Alan Alda’s perfomance as Shelly in the 2005 Broadway revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross”: Though he’s got the moves down pat, you come away suspecting that this Hedwig had to learn some of the four-letter words phonetically, if you catch my drift….
alancumming.jpgThe Roundabout Theatre Company has brought back its sleazed-up 1998 production of “Cabaret,” co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall and starring Alan Cumming as a more-than-usually-androgynous Master of Ceremonies. Seeing as how the Mendes-Marshall revival of the 1966 John Kander-Fred Ebb musical about love and terror in Weimar Germany closed just 10 years ago, I’d call this re-revival an unabashed attempt by a non-profit theater company to mint some much-needed money. With the second Broadway revival of “Les Misérables” playing to near-full houses nine blocks south, though, why complain? It’s a business.
I don’t share in the general enthusiasm for Mr. Cumming’s overcooked performance, which pales in intensity when compared to the diamond-hard detachment that Joel Grey, who created the role in the original stage production, brought to Bob Fosse’s extraordinary 1972 film version, from which Messrs. Mendes and Marshall borrowed a thing or three. But Michelle Williams plays Sally Bowles, the shopworn diva of the Kit Kat Club, with a poignant blend of vulnerability and desperation…
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Read the whole thing here.

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