It's no secret that B.J. Cleveland is one of Dallas' strongest dramatic assets, and he more than proves his worth in The Nance, Uptown Players' dazzling glimpse at the gritty and tragically pretty death of burlesque that runs through July 5.
As a gay man who's built a career out of playing the "nance" (as in "nancy boy") onstage, Cleveland's Chauncey Miles must butch it up when he's offstage. Mayor LaGuardia is rounding up the "depraved" and starting his infamous clean sweep of Manhattan, something Chauncey — a staunch Republican — is sure will blow over after the election.
This sanitizing is set to include shutting down houses of burlesque, a naughty mix of vaudeville, slapstick and stripping that provides Chauncey and his mates not only their livelihoods, but also their senses of self.
Douglas Carter Beane's tight and surprisingly poignant script (remember him from the recent tour of Cinderella?) gives director Bruce R. Coleman a base on which to build a strapping production. The Kalita's revolving stage is put to excellent use by Kevin Brown's peek-a-boo set, which allows us to simultaneously see what's happening in front of and behind the curtain.
Beane wrote lyrics but not music for the snappy skits, so local musician Adam C. Wright composed era-appropriate tunes for the cast to sing along to. A drummer, Jaime Zolfaghari, positioned in the balcony helps Cleveland zing each joke, whether cheap or complex.
Last season Bob Hess dressed as one of the seven dwarves for Uptown's stellar Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but I'd argue that his performance (yup, there's another gnome getup) blows that one out of the water. With exaggerated eyebrows and deeply rouged cheeks (a vigorous bow to Coy Covington, who once again works wig and makeup magic on the entire cast), Hess is entertaining and vaguely intimidating as Ephraim, the emcee of the dingy Irving Place theater.
Beane has written him as an ally of Chauncey's, who still makes his personal feelings about homosexuality known. It's a playwright-introduced quirk that adds interest to a small but intriguing character.
Linda Leonard, as part of the hilarious trio of strippers that also includes Brett Warner and Sherry Hopkins, also is at odds with Chauncey, but she doesn't let her Communist leanings destroy their friendship. There's a whisper of tolerance in The Nance that feels surprising — even more so when you remember it's supposed to be taking place in the 1930s. These folks may disagree about some large issues, but they never let it get in the way of supporting each other.
Unfortunately, the police aren't so understanding. As the play opens, Chauncey is cruising for a one-night-stand at the Automat. He finds Ned (newcomer Sterling Gafford), a sweet lad who's basically homeless after leaving his wife in Buffalo to pursue his true self in New York City. Their relationship blossoms, but Chauncey never stops pulling away.
As his professional life experiences upheaval, you'd think this actor — who's reduced to humiliating drag roles, because those are deemed "still decent" — would cling to the constant in his life. As Beane shows us though, whether it's the state of the theater or the state of your heart, nothing is ever really constant.