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From Here

Theatre Review by James Wilson - July 1, 2024

Blake Aburn
Photo by Matthew Murphy
On June 12, 2016, the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was (at the time) the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. It remains the most violent assault on LGBTQ+ people. Set in the months leading up to the Pulse shooting, From Here, now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center (although not a Signature Theatre production), focuses on a queer community in Orlando. The traumatic events loom large, but the alternately cheerful, bitchy, and rueful musical goes to great lengths to show the resilience, pride, and fabulousness of the Florida denizens. The show intends to be a gushy love letter to the community rather than a mournful elegy, but it is most successful when it gives in to the emotional impact of the shooting.

With book, music and lyrics by Donald Rupe (who also directs), From Here is reminiscent of In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes's valentine to Washington Heights. Daniel (Blake Aburn), a gay, Floridian stand-in for Usnavi, is the musical's narrator and emotional center. At 34, Daniel is estranged from his mother Becca (Becca Southworth), who blames her son's homosexuality on the abandonment of her husband and Daniel's father. (The fact that Daniel, who appears quite secure in his sexuality and has had a long-term boyfriend, just came out to his adoring mother at age 33 is just one of the narrative's unbelievable elements.) In any case, he leaves her a voicemail every day to both needle her and remind her of their once close relationship.

The other central figures in Daniel's life include his ex-boyfriend Michael (Jullien Aponte), who is now in a relationship with Jacob (Devin Skorupski), a presumably forgettable twink, and Jordan (Michelle Coben), Daniel's best friend since adolescence. Ricky (Omar Cardona), Jordan's shy and unprepossessing workmate, soon becomes an important part of Daniel's circle of friends.

Unfortunately, Rupe's book scenes and songs lean heavily on clichés, gay stereotypes, and platitudes in its depiction of queer life in Orlando. For instance, Jordan opens her nightclub show with a song called "Gay Is Better," which is an ode to "the perks of being queer." Apparently, not only do coupling gay men get to double their wardrobes, she sings, but they are smarter and more cultured (because of their love for musical theatre, naturally) than their straight male counterparts. The song includes the cringe-worthy cri de coeur: "To hell with the straight men–I'm taking a stand!/ Homos/ Have good chromosomos/ I prefer homos! Let's give them a hand!" Chromosomos?

Later, during a "gayme" party, the celebrants engage in a myriad of competitions while downing gallons of vodka since, apparently, there was an edict in 1985 in which "supreme leader" Elton John decreed that "gays must listen to Madonna, judge everyone around them, and drink vodka sodas." (As a red-wine, Judy-Garland gay, I somehow missed that mandate.) At the same party, a young woman sings, "Yes, every night I spend with homosexuals/ Ends up naked, drunk, unusually angry, and knee-deep in McDonald's fries!" (Adonus Mabry's orgiastic choreography doesn't help matters here.)

The music, performed by a four-piece band and arranged and orchestrated by Jason M. Bailey, when divorced from the awkward lyrics, is more congenial. The cast winningly puts over the pop- and musical-comedy inflected songs, and Southworth and Cardona are impressive in their belting, soulful numbers. Aburn handles his numerous ballads efficiently but is less effective delivering the fourth-wall breaking narrative commentary. Then again, it would be difficult to make many of the unfunny laugh lines land. For example, comparing the show's emphasis on parent-child relations, the character says, "I like to think of it as the gay version of the hit Broadway musical 'Gypsy.' I know, bitch–Gypsy is the gay Gypsy." I still don't know exactly what that means.

And yet, after more than an hour of similar head-scratchers, something rather miraculous happens in the 105-minute show. A well-appointed living room set materializes on the mostly empty stage that had been previously fortified only by grey cinder blocks, and the cast members gradually congregate onto the scene. (Philip Lupo designed the sets and lighting, and J. Marie Bailey designed the costumes that reflect a cross-section of queer identity.) As the characters deal with the immediate aftershocks of the Pulse massacre, genuine humanity emerges.

They are no longer portrayed as conventional images of queer folk, but as a group of individuals joined together with a shared sense of fear, anger and grief. Their song, "There for You" does not contain profound and witty lyrics but instead pedals overly familiar expressions of comfort. "When you have a broken heart inside your chest," they sing, "There's one thing you should know/ I'll be there for you/ I'll be there for you." The banality of the verse seems both poignant and appropriate since finding the cleverest and most precise words and images to convey the sense of loss is futile.

From Here originated at the Orlando Fringe Festival in 2019. In light of Florida's Governor Ron DeSantis's veto of grant funding to all of the state's arts organization supposedly due to a single queer entry in a fringe festival, shows like this are imperative.

From Here
Through August 11, 2024
Renaissance Theatre Company
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: