Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review: Exciting Cabaret With A Who's Who Of Famous Lesbians

By Ed Malin

Phoebe Legere, powerhouse musical theater performer, is back with a charming new show called Speed Queen. Lissa Moira directs and lights this energetic, boogie-woogie piano and accordion-filled true story about the dapper, butch, 20th Century boat racing woman professionally known as Joe Carstairs.
During World War I, the sixteen year-old Marion Barbara Carstairs (she dislikes this name) is an ambulance driver. She develops a taste for going fast, prefers to be called Joe, and after the war heads to "Gay Paree". There, he meets and falls in love with Dolly Wilde, niece of legendary author Oscar Wilde, who was jailed for homosexual behavior.  Dolly's gender expression tends the other way from Oscar's; she is very assertive and masculine.  Next, Joe heads to London, a place where, seeing as many young men were recently killed in battle, young women are cross-dressing in dinner jackets and going to cocktail parties.  Natalie Barney hosts a salon, in which she sings the " Hymn to Aphrodite" by Sappho. Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love.  The poet Sappho is known for running a school for women on the island of Lesbos; more on that later. Radclyffe Hall, lesbian literary icon, is another of Joe's lovers. Legere portrays most of these characters, who surely deserve a greater mention in history. First, Joe runs an upscale chauffeur business in which he only employs female drivers.   Joe receives a Steiff doll named Lord Tod Wadley from his wildly partying girlfriend, Ruth Baldwin. Tod Wadley will remain with Joe for life. He gets a privileged perch inside the piano during the show. Joe also meets and dates the outlandish actress Tallulah Bankhead, who is as out lesbian as one could be in the 1920s. Tallulah, putting her foot on the piano keys, provides us with a "footnote": " Imitation is the sincerest form of flatterty that medicrity can pay to greatness." This quote comes from Oscar Wilde, and is used apropos of the women's fashion trends Tallulah has started. Tallulah explains much better (and hates on Bette Davis) as she sings us "Bitch Stole My Look".  In the world of entertainment, we now have "imitainment".
Joe, however, creates his own style.  Joe is the child of wealthy people who struggled with addiction (song: "Mummy Was a Junkie").  Upon his mother's death in 1925, now able to afford whatever he wants, Joe is a prominent speedboat racer.  The captain's hat and jacket Joe has been wearing and which endear him to so many ladies look amazing when he gets into his boat.  Onstage, a gorgeous wooden speedboat called the Estelle (boat design by Lytza Colon) is suspended from ropes (rigging by Janet Clancy) and triumphantly driven to victory.  Oddly enough, the sexist male judges rob Joe of victory (throwing the name " Betty" around as an added insult).  Joe is moved to buy an island in the Bahamas called Whale Cay and turn it into a lesbian paradise.  As German film actress Marlene Dietrich's yacht approaches, Joe sings "Welcome To Lesbian Island".  They enjoy life and reminisce about gay times in Weimar Germany, Greta Garbo and other lovers of women, but, in 1932, the world is becoming less tolerant.  Dietrich's sentiment, " you need to know when the party's over and get the @#%& out" are sadly echoed when Ruth Baldwin dies of an overdose in London in 1937.
Joe continues to enjoy his private, shotgun-controlled island. In a beautiful, cosmic finale, Death (David "Zen" Mansley) invites Joe and Lord Tod Warley into the Estelle to float once more around the audience.
When Phoebe Legere is dancing (choreography by Shawn Rawls) or otherwise not at the piano, additional music is played from the Speed Queen Band: Phoebe Legere on piano,  Sean Harkness on guitar, Rob Mitzner on drums, Skip Ward on bass. All of the songs are rousing.  I sat in the front row and could really feel Phoebe Legere's energy throughout.  She is a consummate preformer  whose work you simply  must experience. Hats off to Lissa Moira as well for bringing out so many unique, unapologetic female voices. Between them, they have done a lot of work which examines the nature of stardom.  Surprisingly, this is their first collaboration.  I will definitely be interested in seeing any future collaborations.