“Life. Am I right?” says Mr. Madam (played by Wade McCollum) at the top of Make Me Gorgeous!, a remarkable new solo show now running at Playhouse 46. That was the stage name of a largely forgotten entertainer and accidental pioneer of LGBTQ rights who went by Kenneth Marlowe in younger years and also by Kate Marlowe after having gender-affirming surgery in middle age. Marlowe’s story and books had, until recently, been lost to history, but playwright and director Donald “Donnie” Horn set about bringing Marlowe into the public eye once again in a show that is indeed packed with life.
Much of that has to do with the powerhouse performance of Wade McCollum, who embodies Marlowe and at least a couple dozen other characters in a series of delightful and individually stunning impersonations. The show takes us from Marlowe’s troubled childhood in the 1920s and ’30s with a violent father and an early predilection for “handing out free samples” to male classmates, to the streets of LA where Marlowe got a quick education in how to survive from sex workers and drag queens, to a casino in Chicago where a violent gangster employed Marlowe as a drag stripper.
McCollum, who gradually sheds the pants and button-down shirts of Marlowe’s youth for sultry outfits (scintillating costume design by Jeffrey Hinshaw), sports a flirtatious kewpie-doll smile as he vamps with one of the audience members (Ien DeNio’s sound design gives McCollum’s voice the requisite club-mic zazz). To make these kinds of interactions seamless, set designer Walt Spangler has arranged a small corral of tables and chairs in front of the stage to suggest a night club. McCollum’s transformations, accented by Jamie Roderick’s lighting, happen in front of a small vanity on the rest of Spangler’s Golden-Girls-meets-Norma-Desmond set, complete with a regal white-wicker throne.
Donnie doesn’t shy away from the darker episodes in Marlowe’s life, such as the brutal rape by 14 men that Marlowe experienced while in the army. But rather than dwell on the horrific, the show emphasizes Marlowe’s triumph at not just surviving tragedies but of actually making good — writing several books, becoming a hairdresser to Lucille Ball and Gypsy Rose Lee, reconnecting with his estranged yet eventually accepting mother, and finding the courage to live openly as a woman. Knowing Marlowe’s story is reason enough to see this show.
But another big reason is McCollum, who gives one of the best performances of the season (he’ll be in the role until January 28; Jackie Cox of RuPaul’s Drag Race will take over on February 1). It’s rare to see this kind of tireless versatility onstage, with every one of McCollum’s characters jumping out in front of us fully formed and distinct. Though there are a few slow spots toward the end of the show’s 90 minutes, McCollum’s performance keeps the action taut and consistently shines a bright light on a remarkable life. Make Me Gorgeous! is likely to be one of the season’s sleeper hits, so see it while you can.