Theater Review: “Dance Disco Heat”
“Dance Disco Heat.” Photo Credit: Richmond Triangle Players.
Richmond Triangle Players hosts the world premiere of “Dance Disco Heat,” a lively, sparkling production under the funky direction of one of the playwrights, Amy Jo Martin.
Written as a tribute to the Fabulous Sylvester, also known at the “The Queen of Disco” famous for his 1982 hit “Do You Wanna Funk,” playwrights Amy Jo Martin and Philip Ramirez have composed a bluesy, disco dance party in Act I coupled with a poignant, somber elegy in Act II.
And acted in a disco dream fantasy of shimmering glitter and resplendent sparkles designed by Jennifer McDuffee and hypnotized by Johnny Kernisky’s psychedelic, nightclub lighting, theatergoers are invited to enjoy a drink, dust off their platform shoes, and sing and dance along.
The production loosely illustrates the life of drag queen Fabulous Sylvester through the character of Octavius, played by playwright Philip Ramirez. Acted with diva fabulousness, and weaving in songs like “Can’t Stop Dancing,” “Fever,” and “Don’t Stop,” Ramirez’s Octavius recounts his early days singing in church, to moving to San Francisco, and to finding his lover Gabriel throughout Act I. He is supported by his back-up singers the “Mega Girls,” who wear sequence outfits designed by Philip Ramirez and Judy Ramirez.
Then, the play’s tone changes. Act II transitions into a somber, piteous anthology of Octavius’ battle with HIV/AIDS during the 1970s and 1980s – a time when its pathology remained elusive and scary to the general, as well as LGBT, population. His companions, and even his lover Gabriel, have succumbed to what many called “the gay cancer,” and Ramirez’s Octavius sings of his grief with a solemn tone in “Trouble in Paradise.”
Juxtaposed against Ramirez’s Octavius and his soulful ensemble are two dancers emulating, back and forth, Studio 69 and Club Alpha go-go boys as well as the personifications of Octavius and his lover Gabriel. Choreographed with sensuality, but elegance by Emily Poff and Andrew Etheredge, dancers Andrew Etheredge and Julius Smith – both have toned, supple bodies – dance with the grace of gazelles wonderfully dramatizing Octavius’ narrative against circular shadows lit against the wall of stage left.
Yet while the musical performances in Act I can come off as jarring, I was struck by the musical and dramatic excellence of Act II, particularly with respect to the harrowing exposition and natural dialogue. Surprisingly, none of the dramatic structure feels ungainly or cliché – true, Octavius’ last words of advice, which are to “always plays safe,” could be nauseatingly didactic but they aren’t – and all the characters are so humanly wrought and emotionally performed that the weaknesses of Act I are forgiven.
In the song, “You Are My Friend,” we are privileged to hear Octavius’ back-up singers perform their own solos. Katrinah Lewis, Jasmine Banks, and Chloe Williams sing with spiritual finesse and sumptuous verve. And Starlet Knight as Lavienia Parish – the frame narrator – is playful and charming, schmoozing with theatergoers before the show.
However, despite a few technical glitches – Octavius’ audio, seeming as if to replicate the sounds of a disco, isn’t at times conducive to the intimate confines of RTP, and the projector on the wall of stage right showing scenery isn’t close enough to the stage to be within one’s natural line of sight – the production moves and grooves with the radiance of the Fabulous Sylvester.
Correction July 17, 2012: This production was produced by Philip Ramirez and Amy Jo Martin and staged at RTP.
“Dance Disco Heat” runs through July 21 at Richmond Triangle Players. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.rtriangle.org/
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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