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Ghetto Superstar

Billy Porter in Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am)
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
"I'm a black Broadway bitch from the ghetto," proclaims Billy Porter proudly in the opening number of his autobiographical musical Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am). The multi-talented writer/composer/performer is a force to be reckoned with; he explodes with energy and attitude in a roof-raising chronicle that details its author's experiences growing up in a Pittsburgh ghetto, singing in a Pentecostal church, coming out as a gay man, making it on Broadway, and learning to accept himself for who he is.

An early turning point for young Billy was the televised broadcast of the 1982 Tony Awards, during which he first heard Jennifer Holliday sing a song from the musical Dreamgirls. "This was like church," says Porter in describing the experience. Determined to become a musical theater star, he trained under a protégé of Bob Fosse, worked as a singer/dancer in a theme park (doing six shows a day), and even went so far as taking a train from Pittsburgh to Chicago to audition for the national touring production of Dreamgirls when he was only 16 years old.

However, while he notes the Broadway shows that he's been in (Miss Saigon, Five Guys Named Moe, Grease), Porter is not presenting a show-biz memoir. Rather, he outlines the spiritual journey that enabled him to come to terms with his identity as a gay, black, Christian man who loves musical theater. The show is extremely funny but has its serious side, as well. Porter addresses childhood sexual abuse, gay bashing, and his crisis of faith. He's a skilled actor and his performance is always emotionally grounded, whether he's portraying himself or another person from his life, such as his mother.

The songs, many of which were written by Porter, are seamlessly integrated into the narrative. "Sissywhippers," a funky R&B number, details his childhood harassment by neighborhood bullies. "The Music and the Mirror" from A Chorus Line and the pop tunes "Maniac" and "She Works Hard for the Money" are used to illustrate the song-and-dance routines that he did while working at the theme park, while Dottie Rambo's stirring gospel song "He Looked Beyond My Fault" is deployed for maximum emotional impact as Porter sings it at his stepfather's funeral.

Ghetto Superstar is a passionate, life-affirming tale that amply displays Porter's (super) star quality, and it requires a massive amount of physical and vocal stamina to perform. Porter shows off his dancing abilities as he launches into high-energy choreographic routines on the tiny Joe's Pub stage (musical staging by A.C. Ciulla). Directed by Brad Rouse, Ghetto Superstar is paced quickly, although there are also some quieter, more meditative moments that allow Porter to catch his breath. The writer/performer is assisted by a four-person band and two back-up singers, Sasha Allen and Brandi Chavonne Massey, who contribute to the show's effectiveness. He also plays well with the audience, which becomes an integral part of the experience.

Most impressive of all, however, is Porter's awe-inspiring voice. As he belted out the high notes in his moving anthem "World's Gon' Hav 2 Wait," the audience on the night I attended went absolutely wild. His soulful delivery makes every song he sings a winner, and his original tunes feature catchy, pop- and gospel-flavored R&B melodies that had me humming as I left the theater.