From Christopher Wilson’s ever-inventive mind (book, music and lyrics) comes an emotionally rich musical which courageously tackles the epidemic that refuses to say “Uncle!” Using humour, somewhat stereotypical situations (there are few narrative surprises as the sojourn of boy horrified by HIV/AIDS morphs into boy having HIV/AIDS) and inventive staging (it’s obvious from the opening tableau that director/choreographer Donna Marie Baratta is at one with the creator’s vision), the show is a welcome addition to the ongoing conversation about why infection rates don’t promise (a word that has significant weight in the mother/son/best-friend-lesbian triangle) to disappear from the medical radar screen (new world, old world or third world) anytime soon.
Meet Henry. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, Henry is the literal personification of the virus, constantly at the side of his human incubators and punctuating key revelations (“I’m positive”) as his potentially life-ending presence changes the lives of everyone in his seemingly unstoppable stream of deadliness. Wilson’s stroke of dramatic genius is readily brought to surreal life by David Silvestri who displays a range of emotion that stands in ideal contrast to his marvellously bearish, robust physique.
At the centre of everything (and quite frequently himself) is better-than-average songster and insatiable Friday-night fucker, Michael. Fortunate indeed to have Ryan Kelly play this demanding role. In the early going he’s a perfectly teasing flirt-on-the prowl. After bedding Matthew (John Edwards wears his “red-letter” T-shirt with pride and brings just the right level of exacerbation whenever the pillow talk shifts to his condition), learning more than he wants to but staying on to find out just what sort of man he’s in love with, Michael’s character starts to deal with the very real possibility that he, too, may be in for a crimson-shirt wardrobe change. When the inevitable result becomes known, the line “take back the choice I’ve lost now” speaks volumes. If the curtain fell here, this production ought to be performed in every middle and high school on the planet but—no doubt—the custodians of our precious, Internet-savvy youth would rather have their charges learn that unprotected sex is a matter of life and death the hard way.
Back on the hunt again (the dialogue surrounding the breakup—following a metaphorical cruise, no less—between crotch-ripped Matthew and songster Michael seemed more plot fulfilling than probable), Peter (Jay Davis has a fine turn evolving from head-over-heels horny to stuck-in-the-kitchen “housewife”—no wonder anonymous bathroom sex became his “I have needs” pastime…) and Michael start off happy as pigs in shit, but when Henry’s “shit” moves from no symptoms to “time for treatment” the strain becomes palpable.
Striking a balance between the ugly events are song-and-dance numbers (notably a tango à trois as Michael takes a turn around the floor with his potential life-prolonging pharmaceutical concoctions and the show stopping bathhouse ballet where the trio of sometime lovers parade about with obvious enthusiasm wearing only smiles and towels—replete with spectacular figure skating moves that would be equally welcome on Battle of the [Gay] Blades). After that dose of heady energy and fun, Kelly brings his performance to a totally different level as the ravages of full-blown AIDS manifest themselves in the hospital and at home. Anyone who has witnessed the reality of this insidious disease will have to pinch themselves to be sure it’s all just an act.
Mary Kelly as the doting, promise-me-you’re-fine mom, works easily with Michael in their scenes and songs. Everyone’s favourite lesbian (who looks far too inviting to be a wallflower) Jenni comes to sensible-shoes life thanks to Lizzie Kurtz’s sensitivity, pitch-sure, clean-and-clear vocal contributions. Indeed, most of the voices are comfortable in their ranges (a bit more support through the top and phrase endings would bring Davis more in line with his colleagues), blend well together and deliver Wilson’s music and lyrics with conviction and style. Not an ideal setting for any musical (the piano and drums forced into the wings), there were several times the keyboard swamped the cast and the ensemble became a bit ragged, but the overall sense of feeling and line kept everything and everyone moving steadily forward.
By journey’s end, although Henry was still in the room, few left the theatre without a better understanding of his lineage and, like an unwanted guest, total inability to leave the party where his unseen presence was, nonetheless, felt to the bone by all. JWR