On the disarming accomplished, quietly subversive Dorian’s Closet. Also: Blood for Dracula sucks, well, blood
By Bret McCabe
It only takes about a half hour for Dorian’s Closet to break your heart for the first time. The new musical—book and lyrics by Los Angeles-based playwright Richard Mailman, music by StillPointe Theatre co-founder/artistic director Ryan Haase, receiving its world premiere at Rep Stage under the direction of Joseph Ritsch—rousingly courses through four mid-tempo songs before arriving at the first solo sung by the titular Dorian Corey (the fabulous Stephen Scott Wormley). The ballad, “I Shot an Arrow,” is about aiming for the stars and falling short, and for it music director Stacey Antione wrings just the right amount of too much melodrama out of the five-musician pit.
It’s a bittersweet moment that stops just short of being an outright tearjerker, though if you’re at all familiar with director Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning, you might sniffle a skosh. That 1990 documentary caught up with a number of the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender drag performers powering New York’s ball culture in the 1980s, including Dorian Corey. The final words Corey says in this film: “Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better just to enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”
Now, Dorian’s Closet is not a stage musical adaptation of Burning; nor does it attempt to be the musical biography of the late Corey, a legendary figure in NYC’s 1970s and ’80s drag world for both her performances and fashion designs (Corey passed away in 1993 from AIDS-related illness at the age of 56). Instead, Closet is a fictional imaging of what may have led to Corey’s final dramatic plot twist: a mummified body was found inside a hanging bag in her closet after her death. According to Jeanie Russell Kasindorf’s 1994 New York magazine piece, “The Drag Queen Had a Mummy in Her Closet,” the police identified the body as that of Robert Wells. He had been shot in the head and was “wearing ragged boxer shorts and one sleeve of a t-shirt.”
Steely, statuesque Amazing Grace is too busy being amazing and, quite simply, Doesn’t. Have. Time. For. Your. Bull. Shit.
Closet takes the who’s, what’s, and when’s of this dead body’s discovery and fictionalizes the how’s and why’s. And it does so in the broad strokes of the contemporary pop musical theater. That it works at all is an impressive feat of storytelling; that it works so well is a testament to Rep Stage’s cast, crew, and overall chutzpah.
Although only Corey’s name is in the title, her story in this musical is an ensemble piece. Wormley’s Corey arrives in NYC from Buffalo seeking employment at a Times Square nightclub that is already stuffed with outsize personalities. Friednly but seasoned Jesse (James Thomas Frisby) is the performer who acts as buffer between the rest of the talent and club owner Sal (Keith Richards, who plays multiple roles). Ditzy, full-figured Monica (Richard Westerkamp) cracks jokes that flit between the anxious and the funny. Dreamer Angel (Tiziano D’Affuso) knows she has to sell herself to make ends meet but still hopes of meeting the right man who’ll sweep her off her feet. Pepper (a spectacular Dwayne Washington) is both quick-witted shade thrower and blunt truth-teller, somebody who’s learned what it takes to survive in this world the hard way. And steely, statuesque Amazing Grace (Ian Anthony Coleman) is too busy being amazing and, quite simply, Doesn’t. Have. Time. For. Your. Bull. Shit.
Photography by Katie Simmons-Barth
The glamourous, self-confident Corey strides into this the volatile coterie of performers and quickly moves from newbie in need of a job to top draw. She initially assumes performing in Times Square can be a springboard to New York’s mainstream entertainment world, but she’s quickly schooled on how short that career ladder is for her. Doesn’t matter. In the world of Harlem’s balls, houses, and performances, Corey finds a level of stardom more enthusiastically and sincerely appreciative of her dresses, her sophistication, and her.
Closet‘s first act episodically and impressionistically captures this sweeping arc, and Haase’s music finds smart ways to inject fresh ideas into the Broadway musical norm. For the ensemble piece “At the Ball,” where everybody walks, the strings add an almost Latin shake to the keyboards and percussion groove, a sly wink at the textures that swam through the disco and house records that DJs spun at balls. During this first act Corey meets the handsome Robert Worley (Jay Adriel), an admirer of her act who takes a shine to her.
This first act is also bookended by Corey’s death and the revelation of what’s hanging in her closet; the second act gets down to wondering what might have led to Robert ending up there. Though Haase’s score doesn’t stray from the motifs and moods it develops—in fact, the second act contains one of Closet‘s standout songs, “Pay the Tab,” a cheeky reminder that drag performance is a rent-is-due job—the musical’s storytelling approach, by necessity, switches gears and moves into a thriller’s more plot-heavy drive. It feels like a slightly awkward tone shift, but Ritsch’s direction keeps the story focused and the cast, particularly Washington and Wormley, are so exceptional you forgive a few overly expository sequences. In fact, I attended the pre-opening night preview because I wasn’t going to be able to catch the production otherwise, and even on that night this musical is more polished and accomplished than it has any right to be for being so brand spanking new.
Bluntly, I wasn’t prepared for how solid Dorian’s Closet was going to be right out of the box. Yes, Rep Stage remains a gem of professional theater in the area on par with Baltimore Center Stage and Everyman Theatre, though its Harford County Community College location keeps it under-heralded (driving out there for this production reminded me how much I suck at Columbia). And yes, both Ritsch, one of the co-founders of Iron Crow Theater in 2010, and Haase, with StillPointe, are at this point local veterans who have worked on smaller productions that routinely and impressively punch above their weight class. But broadly pop musicals are more challenging than they can appear, and there’s a reason why producers routinely book test runs for new ones in off-markets before they debut in New York.
Photography by Katie Simmons-Barth
That said, I do hope some regional outlet hires a writer of color to review Dorian’s Closet. The white creative team behind this production have put enough historical thought and heart into telling a version of the black and gay Corey’s story, but that story is still a black and gay one. And only somebody from that community can address whether they’ve come correct or not.
As a musical delivered in the key of Broadway’s mass appeal, there is something quietly arresting about this exploration of Corey and ballroom culture. Musical theatre and vaudeville share the distinction of being America’s first popular entertainments, and setting Corey in the contemporary vernacular of the Great White Way suggest there’s something distinctly American about her story. Sure, part of that is the old saw about America being the place where you can become who you want to be, that marketing logline that underscores the country’s history and founding myths.
But if we take title of Dorian’s Closet literally we also kinda have to deal with the wordplay. Because what’s closeted in Corey’s life isn’t drag, it isn’t sexuality, it isn’t the balls, the dresses, and all that. What’s actually hanging in Corey’s closet is a reminder of the violence of living while being gay and black and trans in America. Dorian’s Closet is a musical that rapturously celebrates the life of one truly original human being that insists you recognize that that life took place in a country and culture hostile to her very existence.
With a few exceptions I have only seen theater produced in Baltimore and Dallas from the 1980s to the present, so I’ve never lived in a city where plays/musicals routinely get previewed before they get tapped to move up to New York. I have, however, been going to see bands play since the mid 1980s, which by happenstance has put me in front of a few groups very early in their careers before they went on to become some version of popular. I don’t possess that A&R gene that recognizes when a band has that marketability it takes to sell millions of whatevers, but when that happens and I recall seeing them play some hole in the wall with 30 other people, I do often think, “Oh, that makes sense.” I have no idea what it might take for Dorian’s Closet to whet producers’ appetites, but when I eventually come across a full-color ad in the New York Times for its off-Broadway run sometime in the future, I have a pretty good idea what my brain is going to say.
Dorian’s Closet runs through May 14 at Rep Stage.
The play doesn’t waste any time, opening with an [insert sound of a blood curdling scream here] as Dracula (Ishai Barnoy) bites into a young woman’s neck. Yes, she’s a nice drink, but he needs virgins, and he’s sucked the place dry. His trusty henchman (Jacob Zabawa, still high on whatever supply of goofballs that had him comically overacting and gesticulating wildly in Annex’s production of The Shattering Frame) says they should head south, where, legend has it, the region prides itself on the virginity of its young women thanks to religion and whatnot.
They rent a room from a local proprietress (Nina Kearin) who runs a boarding house with her two younger sisters (Danni Tsuboi and Marian Keramati). Old, lecherous Drac eyes up the young ladies as potential virgins; thing is, those younger sisters really like to make out—with each other and the local handyman (Mike Smith), who knows something’s up with the new guests when he’s asked to bring the coffin they’re traveling with up to their room.
Cue comic make-out sessions. Cue blood-curdling screams. Cue threesome. Cue hysterical screams. Cue seductions. Cue Drac screaming something like “the blood of these whores is killing me” that I was too busy laughing over to write down accurately. Cue fighting. Cue stage blood. Cue more stage blood. (Did I mention the screaming?) And it all flies by in under an hour. Seriously, it’s like an episode of How to Get Away with Murder, only with more Dracula.
Author Author Bret McCabe is a haphazard tweeter, epic-fail blogger, and a Baltimore-based arts and culture writer.
Dorian’s Closet Photography by Katie Simmons-Barth