The cast of Naked Boys Singing(Photo: Tim Schultheis)
The cast of Naked Boys Singing
(Photo: Tim Schultheis)
Eight times each week, for five minutes at a time, the genial, mild-mannered actor/singer/dancer Luis Villabon--stripped of his inhibitions, his shame, and his clothing--is transformed into The Naked Maid. This diminutive, clarion-voiced performer struts about the stage of the Actors' Playhouse on Seventh Avenue South wielding only a broom, a dustpan, and a can of cleanser. Naked. Totally, unequivocally, 100% percent naked.

If you had told the actor a year and a half ago about this display and about Naked Boys Singing--the riotous, gleeful musical which features "The Naked Maid" as one of its 16, in-the-buff production numbers--he would have scoffed. In fact, Villabon was told about the show, and he did scoff. "I first saw the notice in Back Stage," he recalls now, "and I thought, 'Oh God, not another nude musical revue at the Actors' Playhouse with the word naked in the title to sell tickets! I don't want to audition, I don't want to see it, I don't want to know anything about it.' "

True to his word, Villabon avoided Naked Boys like the plague. Meanwhile, the rest of the city went crazy for it. Opening to rave reviews loaded with naughty puns and plaudits for the clever lyrics and buoyant score, this Off-Broadway show evolved in no time into a huge crossover hit, playing to packed houses night after night and building an unexpected following outside the gay community; many bachelorette parties, for example, have included attendance of the show as part of their celebrations. The Naked Boys continue to be very much on the town: doing fundraisers, appearing in Liz Smith's column, challenging the Full Monty cast to a naked dance contest. "Alright boys," read the press release, "let's see who has the bigger vocal range!"

When a cast member left early last year, Villabon was persuaded by a friend also in the cast to audition. He vividly remembers the moment of truth. "They said, 'OK, group one, please go to the wings and take off all your clothes, and then we'll do the dance steps again." Suddenly Villabon, who confesses to a lifetime of body issues ("I was always the kid who didn't even want to take his shirt off") was shaking his moneymaker in front of a roomful of strangers. And he had an epiphany: "I realized, 'Oh my gosh! I've never been naked on stage before--and I like it!' It felt completely liberating and empowering all at once." Villabon joined the cast of Naked Boys Singing on April 1, 2000, and he hasn't looked back since. Like his fellow actors in the show, he's become utterly comfortable, even enthusiastic, about his nightly grind.

Billy Briggs, who has been in the Naked Boys cast since earlier this year, says: "I have never taken a role like this before. I've been dancing for a while. From dancing I got into musical theater, and I've done a couple of...well, slightly naked things. But I've never taken on anything with full nudity. Nothing quite so 'in your face' as this."

The show is indeed "in your face." In the intro to one number, Briggs boldly approaches the front row and challenges audience members to take as careful a peek as they please at his...vocal range. "Is this making you uncomfortable?" he asks innocently. The first of Briggs' two big numbers finds him on a faux-surgical table, surrounded by fellow cast members dressed as his family--plus one in a giant fake beard, in the guise of a rabbi. The tune, a whimsical, upbeat number called "Bliss of a Bris," is a paean to the one time in the life of a male when his penis is unabashedly the center of attention. In the second act, Briggs returns to center stage in "Perky Little Porn Star," singing "I'm a perky little porn star from Skokie, Illinois" while leaping and cavorting through an acrobatic dance made all the more engrossing by his outfit, or lack thereof. He's just a humble kid from the suburbs, singing the praises of his own pee-pee.

"My songs follow a theme," Briggs figures. "I play a Jewish kid who becomes a porn star. I'm the only person in the show who really follows a through line, so I get to develop a little character, which is great." For most of the show, he says, he's more concerned with his singing, dancing and acting--the same things any performer is concerned with--than the fact of being in the buff. "Once I'm up there, I forget my nudity, and it feels the same as if I were in anything else," he insists.

"Bliss of a Bris" and "Perky Little Porn Star," like "The Naked Maid" and most of the other songs in Naked Boys, aren't arousing so much as adorable. The principals may be naked and they may be gyrating, but the goal is more often titters than titillation. "It's a celebration of nudity, of life and joy," says Villabon of the show. "Maybe the title, especially the word 'naked,' gets them in the door; but I think, more than anything else, we play against the nudity."

Naked Boys Craig Rehnke, Billy Briggs,and Luis Villabon with Joan Riversat the Fragrance Foundation?s Fifi Awards(Photo: H.E. Yhoman)
Naked Boys Craig Rehnke, Billy Briggs,
and Luis Villabon with Joan Rivers
at the Fragrance Foundation?s Fifi Awards
(Photo: H.E. Yhoman)
According to the stars, the show's revealing gimmickry has not kept audiences--or potential future employers--from appreciating the quality of the songs and performances. "The feedback I've gotten in the industry is really great," says Briggs. "It's not one of those shows where people get blacklisted. It's not erotic, it's not really about sex; it's just fun, and the cast happens to be naked." Adds Villabon: "It's not lascivious. It's almost wholesome. The material shines through." One exception is "Muscle Addiction," the inevitable tune about gay men at the gym, which features a long, sultry interlude in the steam room. But even that number, Villabon suggests, only serves "to make a comic point about the funny way gay men are in the steam room." And what way is that? Blatantly, hilariously on the make.

OK. The show may be cute and funny, a solid piece of lyrical and melodic composition. But it's still naked. Talking to the Naked Boys, an obvious question comes to mind: Have their parents taken in the show? In the case of Villabon and Briggs, no and no. Briggs' folks live in a faraway corner of rural Pennsylvania, giving them an easy out, while Villabon's mother offers a pragmatic reason for not showing up: "I saw you naked when you were born," Villabon remembers her hollering when he told her about the show. "I don't need to see it again!"

Still, both actors hasten to point out that no one in the show has taken serious flak from their family about being involved. "For most of the cast, their parents have seen the show," says Briggs. "Look, parents are glad that their kids are working, period. Working in the industry and working in New York. It's still respectable, even if it is naked. And the parts are good for everybody. We get to show off our talents"--no pun intended, of course--"and they're good roles."

Having long ago overcome his skepticism about Naked Boys Singing and his hesitation about performing in the altogether, Villabon now looks forward to his nightly turn as The Naked Maid. "Sometimes, I suddenly realize, 'Hey, I'm about to go out there naked,' " he says. "But it's not like, 'Oh my God, I have to go out there naked.' It's more like, 'Oh my God, I get to go out there naked!"