In the imaginary world of Howard Crabtree, the reprimands of a mean-spirited guidance counselor can lead to a full-blown musical comedy revue. In the real world, local highflier Lyman Goodrich took Crabtree's cue (to "just put on a show!") and has staged his own production of Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly, on a borrowed stage and without an established theater company to back him up.
A sharp blend of political satire and over-the-top comic invention, When Pigs Fly is framed by scenes in which nasty Miss Roundhole berates square peg Howard about his Nellie aspirations to be a musical comedy star. What follows is a series of nancy numbers in which an all-male cast endures stiff corsets, perilous heels and mile-high wigs to make the point that gay men can do whatever they want, as long as it involves skirts and a pound of rouge.
Jerry Harkey, Michael Barnard, Hal Adams and D. Scott Withers portray a parade of pantywaists who've been corralled into appearing in Crabtree's first revue, and Crabtree himself (who conceived the show but died before its debut a few years ago) lives on as the leading character. He's played by young Greg Marzullo, whose naive charm and pretty singing voice provide counterpoint to less polished performances from his castmates.
None is as charming as Withers, the Sybil of campy queens whose previous girlie roles include a turn in Pageant and one as Nana in The Velveteen Rabbit. In one scene, he's a Restoration-era dandy; in the next, a Midwestern housewife searching for a husband for her young son. (She searches, of course, among the show's patrons, leaving me to wonder if audience participation will ever go away.) It's a tribute to Withers' talents that, even when joined by the entire riotous cast, he's never upstaged.
Barnard ought to quit his day job as a director and choreographer of musical comedies; he's much more entertaining onstage than off. Despite his tuneless warbling and flatfooted hoofing, Barnard's performance is among the most engaging here. Whether dressed as a garish cupid or a dopey dressing table, his unselfconscious clowning is always amusing. He hauls his uncorseted torso through strenuous dance routines and even spoofs his own big-headed reputation in funny asides ("This show isn't called Michael Barnard's When Pigs Fly, though it ought to be!").
Harkey, who's made previous attempts at shrugging off the mantle of musical director, has at last found a stage persona that fits. His rubber-faced smirk enlivens several numbers, and the star fits he throws between scenes (in which he rants about the undignified material he's being "forced" to endure) are hilarious.
Unfortunately, Adams -- hired largely for his physical charms -- gets handed some of the weakest tunes. In one number, he's a guy in a horse suit; in another, he's on the other end of a gag about loafers that light up. He's rarely given a chance to shine.
Jim Linde should be handed a palm for his well-oiled direction, and Goodrich another for his workmanlike choreography. Although the pacing occasionally lags, there's no letup from the real stars of the show: the dressers, whose backstage calisthenics shift the cast into a staggering number of Candy Matteson and Matthew Gnagy's remarkable costumes.
Those garish garments never upstage the material, some of which -- particularly a number in which an aging Annie previews absurd musical theater programs -- is brilliant. The high point (if you haven't already heard Karen Akers perform them in one of her live shows) is "Torch," a song series devoted to one cast member's crushes on Newt Gingrich, Strom Thurmond and Rush Limbaugh.
If there's a problem with Mark Waldrop and Dick Gallagher's witty material, it's that there's too much of it. The addition of a prologue in which the actors wander onstage in dressing gowns (and false eyelashes, natch) is pointless and serves only to prolong a show that already needs some trimming. Without the various reprises and the completely cheerless coda, When Pigs Fly might have made for a snappy one-act.
That coda arrives as a preachy apology at the end of the second act, and asks us -- after an evening spent laughing at gay things -- to consider more serious matters, such as intolerance and illness. This lopsided sentiment is badly timed, but happily hasn't the power to sink the superior stuff that came before it.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.