Review: The Afterlife Is a Cabaret in Midnight at the Never Get
Signature Theatre presents a streaming version of Mark Sonnenblick's musical about a pre-Stonewall gay romance.
If you could exist forever in one memory, what would it be? This question lingers over Mark Sonnenblick's metaphysical chamber musical, Midnight at the Never Get, the third offering in Signature Theatre's all-virtual mainstage season, which is now available to stream through Marquee TV. For crooner Trevor Copeland (Sam Bolen, who also co-conceived the show) that "little house" of memory is a cabaret stage where he endlessly recounts his relationship with composer Arthur Brightman (Christian Douglas). The fact that he opens with a torch song should give you an indication of where things are headed.
Trevor and Arthur meet in New York City circa 1963 and their instant chemistry leads to artistic collaboration and romance. Arthur writes love songs, and Trevor performs them at whatever stage will have them. But when Arthur one day insists that Trevor not change the pronouns in one of his songs — meaning that he is clearly a man singing about another man — their act becomes an underground sensation. They get booked to play the midnight slot in the back room of the Never Get, a dingy Greenwich Village gay bar. Ever mindful of police raids, they attempt a mainstream breakthrough without masking their identities as gay men. But when it seems as though success is coming to Arthur and not Trevor, we begin to suspect that this little bubble of memory is not so much Trevor's paradise, but purgatory.
Sophisticated viewers might be tempted to label Midnight at the Never Get a "queer" musical, but it's actually a homosexual one — and there's a difference. Taking place in pre-Stonewall Greenwich Village (Sonnenblick includes nice shoutouts to Julius' and Cafe Wha) it exists outside the standard mythology of LGBT rights in America. So does Arthur, a character who is simultaneously ahead of his time and well past it: While he insists on performing openly as a gay man, he does so as a composer for the Great American Songbook at its twilight, looking upon the rock-and-roll revolution with disdain. He has no time for protest and insists that the only way to change minds is to make people want to listen to you. He is a purveyor of what contemporary activists might call "respectability politics," and this is just one source of conflict with Trevor. Sonnenblick's gay historical fiction is a bit like Ryan Murphy's Hollywood, but much smarter and with better music.
Sonnenblick is one of those rare musical triple threats (he wrote book, music, and lyrics) who actually pulls off all three. His mastery of the classic American tune is evident in the jaunty anti-"Swanee" "Wallace Falls," the smoldering jazz number "Dance With Me," and the cruising-as-meet-cute ditty "Why'dya Hafta Call It Love?" Sonnenblick has a particular talent for finding the perfect lyric, and I howled at several of them in "My Boy in Blue," a song about a gay man in love with his arresting officer. The music for Midnight at the Never Get is even better than I remember it being at its off-Broadway debut at the York Theatre in 2018. Don't be surprised if you find your leg involuntarily bouncing up and down.
It helps that Bolen sells every number like he's channeling Judy at Carnegie Hall. He's both a consummate showman and, as Trevor's demons emerge from the shadows, a heartbreaking actor. The timelessly handsome Douglas is irresistibly charismatic as Arthur, and we easily understand how Trevor falls under his spell. We also recognize that, as in every memory play, these versions of Arthur and the Never Get are based partly on the nostalgic delusions of the narrator.
Director Matthew Gardiner beautifully outfits this Never Get that never was with a shiny grand piano and handsome cabaret tables adorned with little lamps that look like they were swiped from the Café Carlyle. Frederick P. Deeben costumes the two actors in snazzy dinner jackets, and Adam Honoré lights everything in ghostly dimness. Light itself becomes Trevor's chief antagonist, threatening the last call on this beautiful fantasy.
Since Midnight at the Never Get was filmed in the year of Covid, there is no audience seated at those cabaret tables. But honestly, this makes for a better immortalization of the story than any film in front of a live audience ever could be. It really is just Trevor alone with his memories of Arthur, accompanied by a barely visible band (Angie Benson provides the pitch-perfect music direction). When he finishes a number that should get a standing ovation, we hear only silence. Justin Chiet films the event beautifully, with multiple cameras and close-ups, resulting in an intimate recording of one of the best little musicals I've seen in the past few years.
While we may not be ready to pack into a nightclub just yet, Midnight at the Never Get brings a vintage cabaret experience into your home, along with a play that will have you questioning the reliability of memory and the validity of "the one" when it comes to true love. I could watch it again and again.