At the Underground Theatre, a room within a bar just south of Columbia University, director/producer John Forslund has staged a revival of a musical you've probably never heard of. Written by Earl Wilson, Jr., the show is called Let My People Come. When it premiered in 1974, it was a shocking, explicit revue about sex and sexuality. That revue has returned to New York City for a series of Fridays, as a party show in the vein of Naked Boys Singing. The hour-long cabaret is a bit tamer than one would expect -- or want -- given the show's storied history, and the material seems far-less shocking by today's standards. Still, thanks to a game cast, the revival is a wildly entertaining experience that succeeds in what it tries to do: provide a liquored-up audience with a rip-roaring good time.
Despite a Grammy-nominated cast recording, the name "Earl Wilson, Jr." has not been on the tips of theatergoers' tongues for decades, and Let My People Come has essentially been lost to the footnotes of musical theater textbooks. Running over 1300 performances at the old Village Gate (now the club Le Poisson Rouge), the original show was conceived as an all-inclusive alternative to the similarly sex-based – but entirely straight – Broadway hit Oh, Calcutta!, which had closed a few years prior.
The 1970s production featured cast members, occasionally disrobed, simulating orgies and sexual acts, going down on fruit, and singing about it. In short, it was a product of a sexually liberated, pre-AIDS world that was accepting of everyone, no matter your creed, color, or orientation. Critics were never invited to review Let My People Come, presumably out of fear that they wouldn't "get it," the same way they didn't "get" Oh, Calcutta! As a result, neither the off-Broadway version nor the version that ran very briefly on Broadway actually "opened." Until Spider-Man came along, the show held the record for the most preview performances ever.
For the revival, Wilson and Forslund revised the original musical to reflect the world of 2013, where, thanks to the internet, even the most shocking things aren't all that shocking. Original songs like "Come in my Mouth," "Give It To Me," and the outrageously off-color "Choir Practice," are still hilarious, but the new material, slightly predictable tunes like "The Ad" (about hooking up via personal ads), are surprisingly PG-13. Yes, there is audience interaction, and you might get sprayed with Silly String – guess what that symbolizes -- but you can also procure an aptly named "Fuck Off" glow stick bracelet if you wish to be left alone.
Forslund has assembled a hard-working, attractive cast of strong, enthusiastic singers who, to their credit, are very much enjoying letting loose and performing the material. Unlike the original production, there's absolutely no nudity, but the cast members still get very close with one another, often in their skivvies. They strut around the tiny bar room and rub up on audience members while wearing form-fitting boxer-briefs (Gavin Rohrer, Brian Craft, and John Ryan Del Bosque) or pasties (the big-voiced Haley Selmon), or just make out with one another in bras and panties (the amusing Molly McGivern and Amina Camille). There's no story to speak of, but the performers manage to infuse each number with an impressive amount of subtext.
Perhaps most notable, though, is the discovery -- or rediscovery -- of Wilson's actually-quite-marvelous score: hummable tunes with deliciously clever, unprintable lyrics, and, more than once, deep meaning. How a haunting, beautiful ballad like "I'm Gay," about a young man's attempt to come out to his parents, has been lost until now to history is incredibly dismaying.
Don't show this again.