Ghetto Superstar features Porter on a sparkling nightclub stage, with a band and backup singers, singing, talking and preaching his way through his life story. It wasn't an easy journey, but he's not asking for sympathy, just the acceptance of his presentation of who he is. The story is augmented by songs, some classics and others co-written by Porter. He grew up with his mother alone, then with a stepfather, in the tough Pittsburgh neighborhoods of East Liberty and Homewood ("Sissywhippers"). As a boy, the church gave him a chance to shine, as his beautiful voice was discovered ("Jesus Loves Me"), but the church was also a place where being gay was "an abomination." Sexual abuse by his stepfather led to more doubts and frustration, as Porter struggled to live in an environment where he was told that what he was, what he wanted to be, was wrong. A revelatory viewing of the 1982 Tony Awards (with Jennifer Holliday) spoke to him profoundly, as he saw black actors dressed up and singing "like they do in church," something very different from what he saw on TV sitcoms. Finally escaping public school, he was among the first to graduate from the High School of Creative and Performing Arts, then went on to graduate in theatre from Carnegie Mellon. He moved to New York and, five years later, hit Broadway in Five Guys Named Moe. He moved on to other stage work and appearances on several recordings, finding a resonating note with the show Dreamgirls (and he does a wicked "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going)," and had a pop solo recording contract, but at some point, his career began to head downward instead of progressing.
Eventually, Porter hit a physical and emotional bottom, and began looking to release some of the demons held within since childhood. He began writing and directing, and continued acting. The cathartic track led to George C. Wolfe at New York's Public Theater, where Porter was encouraged to develop a show about his life's journey. Originally slated to open here, a scheduling change enabled him to debut the show recently in New York, at the Public, where it was received well. In this second production, Porter returns to his hometown, where he has performed (Civil War, Topdog/Underdog, Dreamgirls) and directed (CMU's acclaimed production of Company) only in recent years.
Porter performs well, with his trademark high energy. The "theme song" "Black Broadway Bitch" sets the mood from the start, as he uses soul, funk, gospel, rock and more to illustrate his story. Even as a cabaret act, the piece is highly entertaining, backed as he is by a superb band (led by Paul Thompson) and two great singers (Maria Becoates Bey and Sherell Davis). But the story, or maybe moreso Porter's desire and need to tell us his story, makes the show more meaningful. Knowing that a lot of the locations and situations he speaks of are recognized by the local audience, Porter creates a close relationship with the audience His story of guidance from performer and teacher Lenora Nemetz, her encouragement that "Bob [Fosse] is gonna love you," then sharing the tragic news that Fosse had died, took on new meaning as Nemetz was in the front row at the performance I attended.
Ghetto Superstar is, in the end, a celebration of Billy Porter's journey thus far, and of the new direction he has taken with this career.
Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am) runs through May 1 at City Theatre's mainstage. For performance and ticket information, call 412-431-CITY or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org. Billy Porter will move on to the New York production of Birdie Blue at Second Stage, which begins June 6.
The 2003 New York musical awards season was all about Hairspray - with over three dozen nominations, more than half turning to wins, capped by a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album, the musicalization of John Waters' cult film started out strong, and it hasn't slowed down yet. Still running successfully on Broadway, after several cast changes, the show's national tour was launched in the fall of 2003 and has been delighting audiences all over the country.
Although the touring Hairspray moves like a well-oiled machine, it doesn't come across as being on auto-pilot. The cast is talented and fresh, the energy high, and it's hard not to succumb to this big "Welcome to the Sixties." The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are clever and charming, all fitting the plot well, as we follow Tracy Turnblad's (Keala Settle) mission to force a breakthrough for blacks and the overweight on an American Bandstand-like TV rock show.
Settle delivers a properly broad (no pun intended) portrayal, and sings the role superbly. She is a strong lead for the cast, and it's fun to watch them all rally around Tracy as she fights for what she believes. For anyone who saw the original cast, Harvey Fierstein is a very tough act to follow, but J.P. Dougherty makes the role of Edna his own, with an endearing and maternal portrayal. He also sings very well, and the sweet "Timeless to Me" with Stephen DeRosa as husband Wilbur is a wonderful respite to the frenetic sixties music and choreography that is the core of the show. DeRosa's Wilbur is clownishly batty, but his small stature adds even more humor to the pairing of Edna and Wilbur. Charlotte Crossley solidly delivers the soul and gospel component through her work on "Big, Blonde & Beautiful" and "I Know Where I've Been."
Other notable standouts are Serge Kushner as Link, Kahliah Rivers as Inez, and Jane Blass in her handful of roles.
With the talented cast, one high-energy song after another, more than enough jokes (overt and subtle), and gorgeous costumes (by William Ivey Long) and the versatile set (by David Rockwell), Hairspray is a recipe for success.
The Hairspray tour continues at the Benedum Center through April 24. For performance and ticket information, call (412) 456-6666 or visit www.pgharts.org.