Gay Abandon

Swine Take Flight At Invisible Theatre.

FLUFFY AS A feather boa, When Pigs Fly takes gay camp to extravagant heights. From its early hammy scenes to the final swine song, the musical revue generates nonstop squeals of queer delight.

Obviously, this is not a show for unsmiling social activists. There's a message here, but it's merely an airy soufflé of "I gotta be me" and "Why can't we all get along?" Yet Invisible Theatre has produced plenty of serious plays about gay rights and AIDS, so it's entitled to open its 30th anniversary season with something irrepressibly light-hearted.

In the setup, we meet an enthusiastic Missouri high-school thespian named Howard Crabtree. A guidance counselor calls him out of a rehearsal for Oklahoma! for a little chat about his future. Howard has been cast as Dream Curly, and is decked out in false eyelashes and a flamboyant getup that calls to mind Woody in Toy Story (so this is what happens when you let boys play with dolls ...).

Howard dreams of a life in the theater--singing, dancing, designing costumes, having the freedom of expression he imagines to be integral to a stage career. The down-to-earth counselor, though, steers him toward careers of more questionable glamour: watch repair, plumbing supply. Howard may find success in the theater, she allows--when pigs fly.

Years later, here is Howard's big do-it-yourself revue, intended to show the naysayers that pigs can, indeed, fly--and when they do, all society's rules are suspended. Howard is a sort of gay Mickey Rooney--but taller and better looking--doing the "Hey, kids, let's put on a show in the barn" shtick. His show boasts a lot of songs, a little dance, hilariously lavish costumes, lotsa laughs, everything but a Judy Garland impersonator.

But it's also beset by backstage blunders and a potentially mutinous cast. Can Howard overcome these obstacles to make his dream come true? Will the proverbial porker take wing?

According to the program bio, the real Howard Crabtree--an effervescent fellow almost unreal enough to have been invented by the show's writer, Mark Waldrop--died of complications from AIDS in 1996, shortly before When Pigs Fly opened in New York.

Howard's Invisible Theatre stand-in is Ryan White, who plays Howard as a starry-eyed all-American boy with a taste for eye shadow and other boys. His fellow cast members--Kevin Johnson, Larry Moore, Kelby Thwaits and Todd Wachsman--cavort under their real names, all of them giving more deeply layered performances than the material really invites.

For this is a show that trades on gay stereotypes. If this were a revue about straight actors pretending to be gay, and if it were played with this much swish, gay advocacy groups would surely protest. But this combination of self-parody and self-celebration seems to make it all right--except that a straight audience member can't help wondering, paradoxically, if enjoying When Pigs Fly brands him as a homophobe.

Let's hope not, because this is a loveable, unpretentious show that's done to a turn. Now, it's full of salacious double entendres--there are songs called "Shaft of Love" and "Bigger is Better," and four dancing cards (all queens, of course) sing, "Before you get your ante up, make sure those cards are plastic coated." But somehow it seems almost innocent in its joy.

This has much to do with the endearing cast. Johnson, for example, is delightfully playful but never freakish in his three torch songs, odes to certain arch-conservatives on whom he develops incongruous crushes. Thwaits is probably the most versatile of the bunch, not only deploying the best-groomed voice but also looking great both in drag and stripped down to his skivvies. The beleaguered Moore, whose every big number falls prey to some production snafu, maintains an inner dignity even when he's trudging around half dressed in an outlandish mermaid costume.

That and Maryann Trombino's other costumes, by the way, could almost carry the show on their own. From Dream Curly's fleecy chaps to a purple velvet centaur and the literally fruity wigs for a sequence featuring 18th-century dandies, Trombino dresses the cast with a wild imagination worthy of Baron Münchhausen.

Amid all this hilarity, White brings poignance--but not bathos--to "Hawaiian Wedding Day," his dream of a lovely tropical family wedding to some nice guy.

Marriage and certain other aspects of conventional life--insurance coverage for one's partner, ungrudging acceptance by mainstream society--still lie beyond the reach of many members of the gay community. When Pigs Fly briefly acknowledges this, but the show is more concerned with potential than with present reality.

In the Act 1 finale, the company buoyantly points out that homosexuals are already functioning quite well in all walks of life. When the curtains part to reveal the cast dressed as members of various professions, you initially think, "God, they're the Village People!" But these guys don't want to be macho men; they merely want to rise to their potential in their own colorful ways.

And you can't help rooting for them. At the final curtain, it's just like that uplifting scene in Peter Pan: Clap if you believe in fairies.

When Pigs Fly continues its run at the Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave., through October 15. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $20 on weeknights, $22 on weekends. For reservations, call 882-9721.
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