3 min

Kitties fall flat

Bold new musical needs work

Credit: Xtra West files

We’ve been promised queer Broadway before. But that usually amounts to a token gay guy playing wingman for his straight buddy. Either that or we’re handed an ounce of queer subtext so heavily coded that we need to make documentaries explaining just how “present” gays and lesbians are. And the “tragic fag” is dead by intermission anyway.

We want to see queers kissing on stage. We want them to sing, dance and make it to the end of the show. We’re tired of switching pronouns whilst singing along to Andrew Lloyd Weber.

So when Barbara Anderson and Kathryn Zemliya decide to write a musical, it comes with a history of lost opportunities and an expectation of compromise. “Even gay and lesbian people have that assumption,” laments Zemliya.

In Alley Cats (music by Stephen Smith, directed by Michael Fera) “nobody comes out, nobody says the word gay, there is no angst about sexuality,” begins Anderson. “The whole world is queer and no one’s asking why.”

In the world of musical theatre, where gay actors playing straight lovers is the norm, queer frameworks are a breath of fresh air. “The actors are so often queer themselves,” Anderson says. And Zemliya notes, “we have one actor so happy because she finally gets to play a butch-she’s had to compromise herself in the past. This opens things for women who are atypical, women who are larger than one type. And also to men exploring transgender issues.”

A bold vision of an all queer world was not enough, however, to save the Oct 1 workshop performance at the Arts Club Theatre on Granville Island. If Alley Cats were billed as a small-time community theatre effort, its lack of talented singers and actors could be gamely ignored. But plans are underway for a 2005 run at Vancouver’s Centre for Performing Arts. And Anderson claims this musical will “show people you can have a queer musical that makes money.” So the gentler rules of community theatre don’t apply.

Workshop or no, performances were simply not up to snuff. The lyrics clipped along at a happy enough pace but were, ultimately, uninspired.

Exceptions include the sassy vocal work of Wendy Bollard (Hilda) who plays a mean old dyke that dreams of tearing down everyone’s home and building “Megakins”-a too-big coffee shop. Plus Matt Olver (Tad) is to be congratulated for his role as the leader of a Chippendales-inspired wrecking crew called Men With Balls.

As for the story, “love is the overarching theme,” says Zemliya. When Hilda decides to knock down everyone’s business in order to build her coffee shop, activist-style high jinks ensue, including the requisite romantic capers. Simon falls for Tad, Felicia falls for Lee, and their characterizations generally fall flat.

There’s enough political messaging to guarantee audiences have their interest piqued, but not enough to ever offend. “It’d be lovely for families to come and have kids see a happy musical where everyone’s queer,” says Anderson. “A lot of queer theatre is very in-your-face and provocative. We’re trying to be provocative in another way-kids seeing queer kisses as normal.”

And even the harshest curmudgeon would admit there was something warm and squishy about watching queer couples make out in the middle of a zany musical.

And it did have the slightest political (butter knife) edge. Though Zemliya reiterates that Alley Cats isn’t meant to be a political production. “It’s not the least bit earnest; it’s very light. If people find an inner meaning, good for them!”

Alley Cats may be better suited to high-school productions than Broadway, since Anderson plans on allowing any school to produce it, free of charge, “as long as they keep all the characters queer.”

Among the crowded talents of Vancouver’s larger stages, Alley Cats won’t start a revolution for underrepresented queer talent any time soon. But it may be a positive indicator of things to come. The Men With Balls chorus said it best:

“Call it bad, call it bitter

But I’ll never be a quitter

Tomorrow’s gonna be another day.”