A sneak peek at Naked Boys Singing!
It’s sweltering in the Turner Hall Ballroom as cast members of Naked Boys Singing! run through tech rehearsals in their underwear. The problem at the moment is the wireless microphones. The cast members have never played to such a cavernous space in a five-year Chicago-based and road tour, so where exactly do you attach the mics when the players in this cabaret-like revue will be in the buff?
“Oh, there are so many costuming issues you have no idea,” show producer Andrew Heidke exasperatedly says as he sprints across the creaking wood floor. Finally, nude-colored armbands are employed, thus saving the illusion.
Things are coming down to the wire for these six athletic men who have been refreshing and rehearsing for five weeks, as well as for the gifted pianist (Matthew Ellenwood) providing the original tunes from NBS!, and others like Heidke who helped shepherd the fundraising event with his partner ever since Gary Witt of the Pabst Theater Foundation read about the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center‘s plight in late 2008 and offered the use of Turner for an event. The MGAC suffered a major financial loss four years ago when the city erroneously shut down a major locally-mounted production of NBS! at its Walker’s Point location.
Back in August 2005, the MGAC decided to produce a version of the show that famously helped the Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles survive financial hardship. Robert Schrock’s musical revue of 16 songs (“Gratuitous Nudity,” “Bliss of a Bris”) written by various writers and featuring talented song-and-dance men in the nude became a huge hit and eventually moved to Off-Broadway. Local productions popped up in other cities like London and Chicago’s Bailiwick Theatre. It became to symbolize a beacon of hope in the gay community as a way to save its specific theater voice. So, a version in Milwaukee was organized.
“Which was something that was brought up as a question during a Town Hall meeting with [then Police Chief] Nan Hegerty,” says MGAC Executive Director Paul Masterson. “Why did they send the Vice Squad specifically to shut it down, then?”
When it was discovered that the small theater city ordinance specifically exempts organizations such as non-profits (MGAC is a 501-c), members sued the city under Injury and Claim. That case has now reached a federal court level under the direct guidance of the ACLU and is slated to appear for arbitration in July.
The cost of refunding tickets bought in advance and paying for the advertising, song rights, and rental costs of mounting the canceled shows nearly ruined the MGAC. Truly a “severely grassroots organization,” Masterson looks wistfully around the volunteers’ back room. Stored frames from previous gallery shows, random paperwork, and theater props adorn the room. He says that the MGAC needs money not only to stay alive but to renovate and make functional the conditions in the organization, which is uniquely independent compared to other LGBT arts groups in the country.
“We don’t hide behind an acronym, which is really a strong point,” he states. “We’re trying to integrate, not dilute the scene. We want to show gay life through our perspective.”
The MGAC can hold around 90 people, and did rather well with a recent staging of Eve Ensler’s the Vagina Monologues. Turner Hall Ballroom can safely hold ten times that, and show producers hope that the word-of-mouth from last weekend’s PrideFest plus the tendency of Milwaukee folk to show up spontaneously will fill out the required audience needed to make the two-night production a success.
It’s ironic to look up at the Turner Hall logo on nearby posters, which features a nude discus thrower (similar to the Discobolos statue by Myron) on it as similarly toned men run through dance steps for a group number. The show glorifies the male form in general and the perils of having a penis. Often the clever lyrics speak to growing up and living as a gay man with a tone of innocence even when speaking to adult subjects. The piano music is usually poppy, almost vaudevillian. The 65-minute show itself is rather benign other than the fact that the performer is ‘full-frontal’, which a few years ago was still enough to close the show in other American cities.
John Cardone, a known TV, film, and stage actor and yoga instructor has performed the show for several years in Chicago and acts as director for this show. He easily drops to the stage and jokingly begins doing effortless push-ups before the group photo happens. Ellenwood quietly breaks out some serious classical chops on the stage piano as Milwaukee-native and NBS! newcomer Rob Stone looks for something among the bags.
The still fully dressed (its part of the show opener) Stone sheepishly explains, “I didn’t wear any underwear today.”
And so, that’s the story of why there’s a cowboy hat in the photo accompanying this article.
The Naked Boys Singing! fundraiser show for the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center happens on 6/19 and 6/20 at 8 p.m. at the Turner Hall Ballroom. Tickets are $35 to $45 with some limited VIP packages available. Contact 414.286.3663 or go to the Pabst website to obtain advance tickets or for more information. Watch for an upcoming follow-up ‘dispatch from the scene’ via ThirdCoast Digest on Saturday.