By Walter Rutledge
Before RuPaul, or Boy George the crown of cross-dressing performers was wore by Sylvester the “Queen of Disco”. He reigned over the androgynous 1970’s and 1980’s dance and club culture with visual daring and signature gospel infused falsetto vocals. The new off-Broadway musical Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical now playing at The Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street pays tribute to the iconic and trailblazing songwriter and performer.
The fast-paced one-act production stars Broadway veteran Anthony Wayne in the title role. Wayne effortlessly guides us through the high and lows of Sylvester life with a believable blend of aplomb and pathos. His command of the stage, powerful and controlled voice, and ability to both narrate and navigate through the material kept the audience literally in the palm of his red finger nail hands.
In addition to the stellar Wayne the musical features a tight five-piece band under the direction of musical director Alonzo Harris. With Assistant Music Director and drummer Jason Patterson, Alex “Busby” Smith on Bass, Ben Natti on Guitar, James Cage on Trumpet, and Harris on Keyboard the band kept the show hot and funky. The shows four singers Deanne Stewart, Rahmel McDade, Jacqueline B. Arnold (who also portrayed Weather Girls member Martha Wash) and Anastacia McCleskey (choreographer and Weather Girl Izora Armstead) were “mighty real” with just the right vocal punch. Although the show has a strong supporting cast and band the production is still driven by one character- Wayne as Sylvester.
Wayne’s portrayal of Sylvester goes beyond an impersonation; he captures the essence and energy, which endears his character to the audience. He is able to “rock the house” with Sylvester anthems such as Do You Wanna Funk and Don’t Stop Dancing, and then become cool and introspective with Cry Me A River and You Are My Friend. One show stopping moment is the medley Could It Be Magic/ A Song For You from the 1979 Living Proof album; here Wayne is completely in his element as a performer. His performance gives us insight into Sylvester- the performer and the person.
From his family life in Los Angeles and the influences of the church and gospel music, through his move to the gay friendly San Francisco; the production clearly defines the artist and the era. The narrative retrospect of Sylvester’s life told primarily through music could best be described as a bio-musical. It not only includes a chronology of Sylvester’s work, but also establishes different timelines through his musical influences.
The musical also delves into the bigotry, homophobia, and hypocrisy of the African-American church and the music industry. The church ostracized a pubescent Sylvester for his being too effeminate, but it was a church official who molested him. While his record label was constantly suggesting he “butch up” his appearance and on-stage deportment to become more mainstream. Ironically, even in the present climate of political correctness and social diversity openly gay male recording artists are still almost nonexistent.
The 2012 TV ONE episode on the life of Sylvester was the inspiration for Wayne and his partner, fashion stylist Kendrell Bowman to begin developing a stage production. Wayne and Bowman shared both creative and production responsibilities as co-producers and co-directors. Bowman was able to use his fashion acumen to design costumes that reflected the period and spirit of the project on an off-broadway budget.
The production has an effective spartan set with a cluster of mirror ball reminiscent of the You Make Me Feel video. There is a staircase center stage (what Queen could resist stair drama) used for entrances and to delineate scene changes. The on stage band and singers create a concert feel that centers Wayne, this kept him the visual focal point throughout. McCleskey’s staging was cleanly crafted accentuating without upstaging.
The first incarnation of the musical successfully premiered in July 2012. Wayne and Bowman built on the success of the production taking it from showcase to off-Broadway. They shared their talent and pooled resources including raising $ 23,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. It was an investment well spent.
The limited-engagement of Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical runs through Sunday, October 5. Tickets are priced from $25- $84.5o. So for a good time that with have you dancing in your seats and feeling the disco heat call (866) 811-4111 or visit FabulousSylvester.com.
In case you missed last weeks O&A Throwback Thursday: Sylvester
just clink below: