Jim Leija is stumped. He begins busting out Beyonce's "Listen," explaining it served as a distraction during rehearsals for his solo musical-esque production. But after botching a few lines, he dives into the middle of the chorus: "The melody I start … " And then he stops.
"We don't really know the words," Leija says, erupting into laughter with his director Erin Markey. Ironically, the next half is, "… but can't complete."
It doesn't matter, though. Leija, 27, won't be belting Beyonce during his comical and campy show "Sins, with all my Heart." The University of Michigan graduate student, who's performing the engagement as his thesis at 8 p.m. March 16-17 on U-M's campus, went shopping with Markey for a mess of navy blue pants.
For 10 hours he and his Grace-like counterpart – who later exaggerates their shopping spree by four hours – hit up Kmart, Meijer, Salvation Army, Value World, and just about anywhere else that sells schoolboy-looking trousers.
When they began rehearsing later that day, they planned to practice extensively and write the show's end. They didn't.
"We just Google searched song lyrics for Beyonce's 'Listen,'" Markey laughs.
Throwing his arms up and belting again, Leija quips: "There's some inspiration in there."
Leija may have fumbled the lyrics to a "Dreamgirls" tune, but his one-man show does have something in common with the '60s-set musical. It's all the sequins, a whopping 70,000-plus that Leija and Markey purchased from Lynch's in Livonia right before their interview.
"Since this costume design has developed, it's becoming like a really big part of what the show's about. And that's not something that could've been written in," Markey notes before continuing and laughing: "It was all about the kinds of navy blue pants that we could find at the thrift store that looked really bad on Jim."
Leija adds, "There were lots of them!"
The pants, along with the white collared shirts, are a play on the Catholic schoolboy look; one that Leija knows all too well. He laughs, "I had not put that uniform on in so long. It was a really surprising moment – and scary."
The musical begins intimately in Leija's childhood bedroom and progresses through the space of his private Catholic school and then into gay clubs, bathhouses and back into a confined space: an HIV testing room.
Sounds sloppy? It is.
"This story isn't interesting unless there's something," Markey stalls and then continues, "there's some conflict, there's something messy. I mean we live in the world of 'Fear Factor,' where people eat bugs. You really have to have a messy show."
"We've got it!" Leija snaps.
Bringing sex to the forefront, "Sins, with all my Heart" blends sexual identity with being gay in the context of AIDS, marriage and political agendas. It highlights the post-AIDS crisis era, when most 20-somethings weren't even sexually active. And it does all of that with Leija in his schoolboy costume.
"I'm not putting out the most flattering version of myself," he admits. "But I think it's important for us as queer people to see depictions of other queer people with the good and the bad."
Leija wrote a slew of drafts, but when Markey stepped in the two re-worked a good portion of the script. With the basic story mapped out pre-production, they tightened the show's opening and ending. "Something that works on the page doesn't necessarily work on the stage," Leija says.
"Sins, with all my Heart"
By Jim Leija and Erin Markey
8 p.m. March 16-17
The Video Studio
University of Michigan Duderstadt Center (North Campus)
Markey playfully dodges the question about working with Leija noting, "Jim and I have worked on several things together." They met during a U-M project while the always-on-the-move Markey (who currently resides in New York) and Leija were taking a break. Markey, who has a soft spot for new kids, sauntered over to Leija. "I was like, 'Hey, do you wanna do handstands?'"