Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical
The Queen of Disco holds an audience in Hell's Kitchen.
There's a disco revival going on at the Theatre at St. Clement's, far holier and more charismatic than anything else you're likely to find in New York City. Anthony Wayne, Kendrell Bowman, and the cast of Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical will take you to church with this high-energy tribute to the late Queen of Disco, Sylvester, a performer with a voice as towering as his stiletto heels.
The chart-topping artist behind such dance hits as "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" (1978) and "Do You Wanna Funk" (1981), Sylvester was way ahead of his time: an openly gay black man with a habit of wearing women's clothing. He was a true original. While Sylvester died in 1988 (at the untimely age of 41), this show brings his music roaring back to life, with only the mildest of unfortunate interruptions.
Mighty Real takes the form of a Sylvester concert from beyond the grave. "I had so much to say and not enough time to say it," a ghostly voice tells us before the music starts. The stage is bare except for a five-member band, four backup singers, and a central staircase that leads backstage. A giant glittering "Sylvester" sign hangs overhead alongside a mirror ball. To the raucous strains of "Down, Down, Down" from his eponymous 1977 album, Sylvester (Wayne) pirouettes onstage at the top of the staircase, decked out in a knee-length fur. He immediately unleashes his powerful falsetto, a display of vocal gymnastics that Wayne impressively sustains for the next 90 minutes.
Codirectors Wayne and Bowman have wisely cast backup singers who can match our front man in style and substance. While this version of Martha Wash (Jacqueline B. Arnold) and Izora Armstead (Anastacia McCleskey) are many pounds lighter than the "two tons o' fun" they're portraying, they lack for nothing in terms of vocal prowess. McCleskey (who also serves as choreographer) really knows how to move. Both women knock it out of the park with "It's Raining Men." (Sylvester's backup singers went on to a successful career as a duo called The Weather Girls.) Rahmel McDade and Deanne Stewart round out the cast, with the latter giving a high-octane invocation of Tina Turner in "Proud Mary".
Everything about this show is supercharged, with the tempos pushed far beyond even their original disco exuberance. David Lander's concert lighting shoots this energy straight into the audience, while Kendrell Bowman's costumes are over-the-top fierce, especially Sylvester's gilded kimono. The riffs are higher, the dances sweatier, and the glory notes even more glorious than they were in the '70s. These fresh arrangements only serve to elevate the already high-energy dance anthems.
The one place where Mighty Real fails is in the element that has been the stumbling block for so many bio-musicals: the book. Between songs, Sylvester tells his life story, alloyed with a heavy dose of hackneyed kitchen-table wisdom. He talks about living life on his own terms and having no regrets. At the same time, he keeps coming back to his lovelorn depression (in order to segue, one suspects, to a soulful power ballad). It's as if this incredible concert needs to justify its occupation of an off-Broadway venue with a hastily constructed book chock-full of clichés and false epiphanies.
Wayne (an incredibly gifted actor, singer, and dancer) has also written the book while directing himself, with the help of Bowman. Perhaps this lack of collaboration explains why the monologues often feel self-indulgent and half-baked. Sylvester introduces us to his partner, Rick, and then promptly kills him in 30 seconds. While this moment is clearly internalized for Wayne, the audience never has the opportunity to be emotionally invested in this relationship, leaving us politely (but coldly) sympathetic.
But let's get (mighty) real: You're not buying a ticket to marinate in dramaturgically solid storytelling. You're going so you can hear some awesome disco anthems reverberate with gospel fervor off the rafters of a gay-friendly Episcopal church. Mighty Real does that with uncommon flair. Go enjoy it for what it is: an astoundingly well-performed concert of irrepressibly fun dance music with some high-flying torch songs thrown in to sweeten the deal.