Cabaret is first cousin to musical theater. It's not surprising, therefore, that New York's clubs are often the incubators of future productions that might someday play in spaces that have ushers instead of waiters. We regularly see theater pieces in cabaret rooms, but we haven't seen anything to match the theatrical ambition and musical complexity of Wayward Son: A Not-So Fairy Tale since the award-winning Indigo Rat burst upon the club scene two years ago. By Off-Broadway standards, let alone cabaret standards, this new show at Don't Tell Mama, created by Gregg Rodeheffer and David Maiocco, is a remarkably sophisticated production in almost every regard except for its ultimate theme--and that's supposed to be simple, because it's constructed as a fairy tale.
There is no original music in Wayward Son, yet the show fairly glows with originality. Using pre-existing pop, rock, country music, commercial jingles, and show tunes--all arranged to make the sum of the music greater than its parts--the show's creators tell a simple story about a gay young man's journey to maturity that works largely because it's told with so much theatrical panache. Take away the smart and stylish approach to the story and all you've got is a hackneyed tale of a youth learning to love himself after a self-destructive descent into alcohol, sex, and drugs. But put it all into a mock fairy-tale format, add sharp direction (Lennie Watts), inspired lighting (Bobby Kneeland), and a talented, fully committed cast, and you've got the makings of a musical that ranges from raunchy to radiant, with occasional detours into preachy and predictable. Overall, the effect is truly mesmerizing.
Rodeheffer plays the wayward son, a young man who is heir to a metaphorical kingdom. Before he can claim his rightful place in the world, however, he has much to overcome. In his quest for love, he discovers that he's "Kissing a Fool" (music and lyrics by George Michael). That fool leaves him flat, and the bitterness of a broken heart sends him spiraling into loveless sex. Yes, it's a cliché--but, from a musical point of view, the experience is anything but simple. While our hero has a gay old time "Two Doors Down" (words and music by Dolly Parton), his lovers--played by David Gaspin, Jonathan Tomaselli, and AJ Irvin--treat him like a sex object. They sing an amusing parody lyric to Rodgers and Hammerstein's "There is Nothing Like a Dame," changing the last word to "Blonde." Sex leads to boozing and drugs, indicated by a clever coupling of "Smoke Rings" (Gifford/Washington) and "The Joker" (Miller/Curtis/Ertegun) followed by a performance of "Hashish" from Hair that is literally smoky (thanks to a smoke machine).
The dramatic arc of the show takes the audience through songs like the title-inspiring "Carry On, Wayward Son" (Kerry Livgren), "Here is the Heart" (Krieger/Eyen), and "Friend to Me" (Garth Brooks), eventually leading to a stirring rendition of "I've Loved These Days" (Billy Joel). Yet this is more than just a series of songs; oftentimes, musical phrases from various tunes are interjected in order to cause an emotional ricochet. The show is a musical high wire act in which cause and effect are calibrated in measurements as little as four bars, one bar--sometimes, just one note.
Rodeheffer, starring in only his second cabaret show, gives a performance of startling dimension. The role is highly stylized but he keeps his poise throughout. His singing is crisp and clear; only in the early moments of the piece did the four-piece band tend to drown out his vocals. He is otherwise given sterling support by that band, consisting of Carl Allocco on guitar, Sam McPherson on bass, Mathew Smith on drums, and the extraordinary David Maiocco--the show's musical director--at the piano. The supporting singers not only offer well-defined characters but distinctive voices, as well.
Wayward Son takes a few wayward steps. The recorded narration is overwritten and, at times, overlong. The fairy tale itself is more visually and musically engaging than emotionally compelling; it's not so much that you care about Rodeheffer's character as that you're pulled along by the creative vibrancy of the piece. Wayward Son will no doubt change and evolve, but it can be seen twice more in its initial form at Don't Tell Mama on May 23 and 30 at 9pm.