BLOOMFIELD HILLS – Gays in theater? We’re everywhere, of course. But gay plays and characters? That’s a somewhat different story – especially on community theater stages throughout Southeast Michigan.
While many amateur troupes – if not most – stick to tried-and-true musicals, traditional dramas and fluffy comedies, St. Dunstan’s Guild of Cranbrook has carved an unusual niche for itself by regularly producing shows and events that appeal directly to the LGBT community. And it does so in one of the area’s most conservative neighborhoods. But what’s even more surprising is how successful such programs have been over the last several years.
“I wanted to find a way to raise money for this theater and came up with ‘Evening at La Cage,'” recalled Harris Van Cleef, an Oklahoma native who is directing the upcoming production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” “People said, ‘You can’t do a drag show in Bloomfield Hills! They won’t get it.’ And I said, ‘Just because they’re rich doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of humor.’ And as it turned out, they all had a great time. It was a lot of fun, and we raised a lot of money.”
As publicity committee chairman Jamie Richards pointed out, it’s the gay-themed and edgier plays that routinely sell out the theater. “That’s the stuff that’s bringing in the money. People look forward to the fact that we’re doing them.”
Theatergoers won’t have long to wait for the troupe’s next gay-themed production, as the Tony Award-winning “Spider Woman,” with music by Kander & Ebb, opens the season Oct. 12 for a three-weekend run. “It’s one of the few shows that encompasses everything that musical theater has to offer,” the director explained. “Everything from the big, splashy, colorful, cheesy musical numbers to truly dark, haunted kind of twisty things. There’s such a dichotomy going on: Just when you think you’re at the moment when it can’t get any darker, you get this fabulous production number.”
It’s a daunting show, Van Cleef said, which is why he believes few community theaters have yet to stage it. (His is the first in Southeast Michigan.) “It’s a difficult task, from the standpoint of the sets and lights. But the payback is so far beyond what’s daunting that I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to do it.”
One potential problem for the director didn’t materialize. “Male-dominated shows are a challenge (to cast) in community theater, but I got really lucky. We cast all our leads at the first auditions. Our biggest stretch was finding male dancers. It’s not easy to do.”
Nor is playing the role of an imprisoned, gay window dresser for John Nowaczyk. “From the beginning I was told that this character, Molina, has to be very ‘gay’ – very effeminate and flamboyant,” the actor said. “And as an actual gay man who has spent most of my life trying NOT to be that way – a lot of that stuff probably DOES come naturally, so to speak, but it doesn’t for me.”
However, it’s his job to deliver what the director asks of him, Nowazcyk acknowledged. “It’s just a matter of letting go of those inhibitions – the internalized homophobia – and just owning that character, and believing that people are going to be moved by my performance and not annoyed that I’m acting all nellie.”
Although a musical tale about two men caged together in a Latin American prison – one straight, and one gay – might not be everyone’s cup of tea, Van Cleef believes they still will like it. “It’s unlike any show you’ve ever seen in your entire life. If you don’t love musicals, it’s great theater. If you don’t love theater, it’s a great musical. It’s a unique experience.”
‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’
St. Dunstan’s Guild of Cranbrook, 400 Lone Pine Rd., Bloomfield Hills. Oct. 12-13, 19-21 & 25-27. Tickets: $18. For information: 248-737-3587 or http://www.stdunstanstheatre.com