Nudists in Love
New York International Fringe Festival - FringeNYC
The “Gay No More” Telethon
“Let’s get one thing straight... You!” This phrase may not be the most delightful thing about Michael DiGaetano and Albin E. Konopka’s The “Gay No More” Telethon, but it’s up there. It’s so charmingly inane that you’ll have to work to stifle a giggle each time it’s spoken in this musical satire set on the sound stages of the Religious Broadcasting Network. How nice that those words don’t lose their freshness upon multiple hearings. If only the same were true of the rest of the show.
Composer-lyricist-librettist DiGaetano and composer Konopka elicit a fair amount of charm from routing that particular species of Southern American that believes people can pray away the gay. Maintaining it is another story: Almost every song starts with a bang and ends with a whimper because it doesn’t go anywhere in between, a surefire way to corrode accumulated goodwill. Ideas and melodies are not so much developed as they are rehashed, practically endlessly, with even the sharpest comic or musical phrases utterly denuded by the third, fourth, or fifth time you hear them.
The opening number, for example, is set in Heaven, with St. Peter denying entrance to a sociopath, a self-absorbed socialite, and Saddam Hussein until they profess their straightness, all in identical musical and lyrical language that blunts the joke right until the final appearance of a doomed young man whose only “sin” was sleeping with men. The telethon’s hosts, Joe and Barbara Joe Barbara (David Abeles and Gerti Lee James), sing a meandering ballad about their sexual reconditioning in which the only humor derives from rhyming “penis” and “between us.” And so on.
The writers also stumble in their more overt point-making, mostly in a creaky subplot in which a disconnected telephone operator (Michael D. Jablonski) struggles to overcome his feelings for a gay-no-more country star (Kurt Robbins). This conventional bit of playmaking withers beside the cleverer conceptual scenes, in which the score’s juicy twang, Dennis Erdman’s silver-bright direction, and unusually refreshing gags (who would thought jokes about ventriloquists and Canadian Mounties could be funny again?) criticize with the most entertaining of ease.
If the cast is uneven, it’s winningly led by Abeles and James, who as the evening’s personable (and unsettling) emcees sell the comedy without ever overselling it. They present a beguiling vision of intolerance as Joe and Barbara flail to convince home viewers of something they barely believe. But they have a cause and they’ll force you to listen, even when their pressing on does more harm than good. These characters prove that DiGaetano and Konopka understand the potential dangers of undue repetition; their show would be better if they take those lessons more fully to heart.
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
It’s no shirt, no shoes, and no service at Nudists in Love, likely the first and hopefully the only musical ever written about a homeowner’s association.
What, you were expecting something else? Yes, there are times - if far fewer than you might infer from the title - that the characters shed the confines of society’s shameful fashion conventions. But book writer Shannon Thomason and songwriter Nirmal Chandraratna are mostly concerned with conformity of another sort: that found in a scrupulously governed gated community. There the reign of benevolent organization president Trevor (Adam J. MacDonald) is threatened when his archrival Roger (Todd Faulkner) discovers that Trevor vacations once a year in a clothing-optional Wisconsin resort.
Titillation, or for that matter entertainment, can’t get a word in edgewise when so many songs center on petty politics, community soccer games, and vague plaints about personal liberation. Chandraratna has crafted a handful of memorable tunes, which usually get lost among insipid lyrics of either the you-don’t-understand or I-don’t-understand variety, or in book scenes that test your endurance for discovering whether any story really can be a musical. Director Sara Thigpen stages everything with a pointed pace that never builds momentum, but at least keeps things from sagging. (No jokes, please.)
The saving graces are its performers’ singing voices, which display velvety colors and depths you wish had seeped into their portrayals. MacDonald and Kristin Maloney, who plays his wife Tina, put on too many put-upon airs to command your sympathy; Faulkner seems to be doing his best impression of a caffeinated Elmer Fudd in a role doing its best impression of Daffy Duck; and the rest of the ensemble is a delicious-sounding but flavorless group. BJ Hemann offers the most vivid portrayal, of Trevor’s stereotypically super-straight neighbor Caleb, who gets creeped out over the idea of his friend’s nakedness.
Whether he too will be cavorting about in the altogether before the show concludes will not be revealed here. It probably doesn’t have to be - in Nudists in Love, originality is in shorter supply than clothes. This musical about being true to yourself would be best served by doffing the painfully familiar trappings it drapes itself with. That would also help the audience stay with it - and stay awake - long enough to glimpse the skin they probably came for in the first place.
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes