Review: Everybody's Talking About Jamie Has a Sizzling Cast but Not Much Else to Speak Of
The UK hit is making its North American debut at LA's Ahmanson Theater.
Of course, Everybody's Talking About Jamie, since its star, Layton Williams, is an unbridled force of nature. Strutting on the Ahmanson stage, Williams, as the boy who could drag, keeps command of the audience with every withering glance and bombastic movement. His heartfelt performance, and support from a talented cast, elevate the US tour of this UK hit above its shortcomings.
The steel-making British town of Sheffield has no patience for a gay community. Jamie (Williams), a high school student stuck in a suffocating world where teachers only see their students capable of manual labor, imagines a more fabulous life. He wants to be a drag queen. His supportive mother (Melissa Jacques) believes he can do anything, and even buys him bright red pumps for his 16th birthday. Jamie gains a mentor in an ex-pat dress-shop owner (Roy Haylock, a.k.a. RuPaul's Drag Race winner Bianca Del Rio), who once performed as Loco Chanelle. While the school bully (George Sampson) and a well-meaning but small-minded teacher (Gillian Ford) try to squelch his confidence, Jamie is determined to defy the rules and go to his prom in a dress.
Jamie is a spirited production, promoting pride and self-assurance. The book, by Tom MacRae, builds a tender love between the boy and his mum. Their relationship is the center of the libretto's heart. But the story also suggests that its antagonists aren't one-dimensional. The teacher, Miss Hedge, believes she's got the students' best interest in mind, including Jamie's, yet she doesn't recognize that her inadvertent bigotry is causing her kids more harm by stifling their dreams. And the bully seems more angry and lost than just a cruel, nasty monster.
Unfortunately, the storyline doesn't give Jamie time to learn about becoming a drag queen. He gets a dress and away he goes. Other than a funny scene with his best friend Pritti (Hiba Elchikhe) regarding eyebrows, Jamie gets to learn little about the art of drag. The audience doesn't even get a chance to see Jamie perform, a situation fixed in last year's Amazon Studios' film. It's like doing My Fair Lady and not getting to see Eliza at the ball.
MacRae's 2021 screenplay had remedied quite a few problems with the bare-bones libretto presented on the Ahmanson stage, particularly with the mentor Hugo. The film gives the character (played by Richard E. Grant) a painful backstory illustrated by a more powerful song called "This Was Me" — a far more impressive showcase number than "The Legend of Loco" presented here. Within the play's confines, the Hugo character has no purpose other than as a vehicle to move Jamie to the next plot point.
The music by Dan Gillespie Sells (leader of British band the Feeling) is catchy, melodic pop that the Pet Shop Boys perfected in the '80s. Gillespie Sells excels at both the group numbers and the roof-shattering ballads. MacRae's lyrics, though, are just serviceable, with too many cliches and elementary rhymes.
Director Jonathan Butterell keeps the movement fluid, with the cast reconfiguring the sets while still in character. Working with mostly alum from the London and UK Tour casts, he surrounds his star with a cohesive team.
Williams has star presence. He sings like an angel, and whether throwing shade or breaking down, he keeps the audience devoted to his character. Jacques has a magnificent voice, really tearing into her ballad "He's My Boy," and has enduring chemistry with her stage son. As the family's best friend, Shobna Gulati is a hilarious, take-no-prisoners father-figure. Elchikhe evokes the quizzical but unconditional love of a best mate and has another outstanding singing voice.
The headlining name, Haylock/Bianca Del Rio, is the one disappointment. Though Haylock performed the role during the UK Tour, he appears uncomfortable on stage as Hugo. The audience can see him working hard at acting, instead of inhabiting the role. When returning later in the show as Loco, the drag character seems interchangeable with the famous Bianca Del Rio. There's no interpretation of Hugo's drag personality, just a replacement with the actor's alter ego.
Kate Prince's fresh choreography combines modern dance and street hip-hop. Anna Fleischle's set is minimalistic, but inventively manages to convey many locations easily. She also designed the costumes, which are stunning, from Loco's white (and suddenly red!) dressing gown to all of Jamie's outfits in the streets, on the stage, and at the prom.
This production sizzles because of its cast, but if the creators hope to keep this show alive in the future, through regional productions and tours, they may want to incorporate some of the enhancements made for the movie into a revised version of the play. Even with an iconic performer in the role of Jamie, all that is left is a thin play that doesn't resonate.