Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Diva Diaries opens as three young drag queens take the stage of a gay club called Pandora's Box amidst the celebration of New Year's Eve 1985. A quick song, and an even quicker costume change later, they emerge to welcome in New Year's Eve 1999. Another trip through the shimmer curtain brings us to the same three drag queens beckoning in New Year's Eve 2008. Then there we are at last in present day with our three main characters ensconced at their dressing room table as they discover that the club will be closing and this is their very last night together.
Each character is played by two actorsone portraying a present day version and the other portraying a younger version. Seated at her place at the middle of the dressing room table is Cleareen (Brian Padgett), the most centered and mature of the three, who seems to be a bit of a mother hen. To her right is Damsel (Johnny Butler). Flighty and youth obsessed, Damsel has made her way through life relying upon the kindnesses of his latest "man du jour." Having grown up in a trailer park in Georgia, she trades on her good looks to find men with the most attractive of New York City addresses. On Cleareen's left is Randee (Jason McCollum), a supposedly straight, African-American aspiring actor who got side-tracked doing drag to make money. Sadly, along the way he has stopped even auditioning or taking classes.
The show unfolds as the three characters reveal themselves to each other in ways they have not until now. These are stories of humor, tenderness, resentment, and joy, all shared through both song and scene work. In the end they rediscover a bond that has always been there, one that is born of a mutual commitment to fun and friendship. The younger versions of each of the three characters share the stage in flashback moments. David Vogel (Young Cleareen), Keagan Tanner (Young Damsel), and Ryan Brown (Young Randee) get less scene work on stage than their counterparts, but more choreography and costume changes.
The premise of Diva Diaries is undeniably appealing, though at the same time awfully derivative of the characters from the 1995 film To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar. In addition, though there are times when the script is touching and witty, there are others where it borders on the trite. Musically, the show misses out on maximizing its cast resources by using the three male voices to lean upon for writing tight, three-part harmonies. Part of this is writing, part of it is the sound system. There is throughout the show an imbalance between the microphone levels of the three singers, and also between the pre-recorded tracks and singers as a whole. The end result is an audio muddiness and lack of any consistent blend that makes it difficult for the audience to relax and enjoy the show.
One can assume that the sound issues manifest themselves on stage as well as in the audience, as the actors are sometimes flat or sharp, and fail to master smooth entrances and cut-offs. The best moment of mastery occurs in a duet between Ryan Brown and Jason McCollum. McCollum is the strongest soloist of the cast with a great sound and style. The others either are not given strong enough moments to demonstrate their abilities as soloists or fail to seize them when they are.
It would be difficult to pick the strongest dancer in the cast as Tanner, Vogel and Padgett are all very talented. The choreography is fun though a little less inspired than that featured in shows such as Kinky Boots. The combination of choreography and campy drag outfits and wigs provide entertaining visual distractions throughout the show, but director/choreographer Ricky Nahas needs to up the ante to take the show to next level. This is also visible in some of the book scenes which have not been fleshed out as much as they deserve to be. Padgett exudes the most natural ease and charm on stage. If the rest of the cast could be brought to that level of ease perhaps the other current issues such as the sound system would fade away. For now it is best to say that this uneven production of Diva Diaries, though full of potential, is still rough around the edges.
Diva Diaries will be appearing in the Abdo New River Room of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts through January 31, 2016. The Broward Center for the Performing Arts is located in the Riverwalk Arts & Entertainment District at 201 SW Fifth Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, FL. For tickets or other information, contact them by phone at 954-462-0222or online at www.browardcenter.org.