Dallas' Uptown Players goes whole hog with breezy musical revue
During wartime, people craved entertainment as escapism. The same could be said for pandemic times, when we've all been cooped up inside our homes for the past 16 months while COVID-19, social injustice, and general fear and worry swirled around us.
Now theaters are reopening, and a healthy dose of frothy frivolity might be just what the public wants. Uptown Players is giving it to them in the form of a silly sketch musical called When Pigs Fly that combines hammy laughs with gaudy costumes — no heavy thinking required.
Howard Crabtree and and Mark Waldrop's Off-Broadway revue (with music by Dick Gallagher) was actually Uptown Players' very first show in 2001. Back then it was presented right after 9/11, another time when the nation was seeking an uplifting escape.
The premise is simple: The idealistic young Howard (energetically and adorably played by Jacob Hemsath) is told by his guidance counselor that theater isn't a viable career. He should consider something more traditional, like plumbing or watch repair, but Howard isn't deterred. He rounds up his equally dramatic friends and puts on a show named in tribute to the counselor's jeering admonishment.
What follows is two hours of loosely connected musical numbers that rely on broad punchlines and even broader costumes, a la the Ziegfield Follies. And since this is Uptown Players, most of the performances are in drag.
Leading the ensemble is beloved Dallas drag performer Lee Walter (you might know their alter ego, Jada Pinkett Fox) and Micah Green, with Michael Russell and Duke Anderson (sometimes) taking on the more butch characters.
Director B.J. Cleveland keeps the gags coming at a brisk pace, from a porn-inspired number to one celebrating the inner freak in all of us. A particularly rousing act one finale shows how colorless America's patriotism would be without rainbow stripes to fill out the flag.
Walter also gets a running joke crooning torch songs about politically inappropriate crushes that transitions smoothly into a heartfelt ballad about humor's place in serious situations. If you've seen Bo Burnham's Netflix special Inside, it might remind you of his song "Comedy."
Kevin Gunter leads a bouncy, four-piece onstage band and frequently interacts with the cast, furthering the "let's put on a show!" feeling. Exaggerated "backstage" set pieces courtesy of Dennis Canright are both a nod to Howard's DIY aesthetic and a surprisingly emotional reminder that we are finally back inside a real theater.
But the costumes might be what you remember most of all. Uptown has rented the 2017 Off-Broadway revival threads from the TDF Costume Collection in New York, and they are truly showstoppers. Bruce Coleman constructed the finale looks with a bit of engineering flair, with Suzi Cranford designing additional togs here and there. Coy Covington works his usual "more is more" magic with the hair, wigs, and makeup.
I won't spoil what the finale costumes are, but their sheer absurdity is all part of the charm. Though the real world might be waiting outside the lobby, it's nice to be up in the clouds for a while.
Uptown Players' When Pigs Fly runs through July 25 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.