Friday, October 31, 2008

Backwater Blues: Second in Compass’s “Q Plays” Series


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo credit: Paul Savage.

Running in repertory with Britannicus at Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest, is Backwater Blues, second in the theatre’s ongoing “Q Plays” series of productions with Gay, Lesbian or Transgender themes. An original musical composed by Michael Thomas Tower, with book and lyrics written by Tower and David M. Newcomer, Backwater Blues isn’t what you might expect from the title — a biomusical of the great 1920’s Black Bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith (“Backwater Blues,” a song about the 1927 Mississippi River floods — the Hurricane Katrina of the time — was one of her biggest hits) — but a light, campy musical about five men thrown together in an unlikely attempt to mount a touring musical production in the tiny town of Toad Lake, Texas (population 233).

It’s really a show about love and dreams, in particular about whether to stay stuck in Toad Lake and lead the straight (in both senses) life or to go to New York and pursue your show-biz ambitions. It’s also built around the usual romantic complications. J.D. (Andy Collins), the show’s director, once was married to a woman and had a son, and he’s trying to remain a part of the boy’s life while also handling the loss of his most recent partner (deported by ICE). He’s been embittered by all these experiences to the point where he simply doesn’t notice the torch his star performer, Marvin (Tom Doyle), is carrying for him.

Meanwhile, young Toad Lake native Arnie (Shaun Tuazon), a protégé of local high-school teacher Miss Melnor (Grace Delaney), is being cruised by the mysterious Rock (Anthony Simone), who’s hiding out in the troupe to try to avoid the long arm of the law. Said long arm is Sheriff Fetch (also Grace Delaney, and in this character she’s the only performer who actually does a Southern accent), who’s hanging around the company and is convinced Arnie is shielding Rock. Actually, Arnie’s romantic interests are fastened on Joe (Trevor Bowles), whom he “played around” with in high school and never forgot — only Joe’s decided to settle down in his father’s business and marry a girl named Chrissy (whom we never see).

Seen in dress rehearsal October 26, Backwater Blues didn’t break any new ground in Queer theatre (the stated goal of the “Q Plays” series) but it was a lot of fun. It’s occasionally more than that, particularly in the remarkable performance of Trevor Bowles, who’s as convincing here as a man torn between straight and Gay as he was as an already “out” Gay man torn between his friends and a problematic new partner in the previous “Q Plays” production, Hairdresser on Fire. Andy Collins is also convincing in his bitterness as J.D., and Tom Doyle is the best singer and dancer of the bunch and has a spectacular number at the start of act two that doesn’t have anything to do with the plot but is one of the most entertaining parts of the show. Shaun Tuazon looks barely past the age of consent — it’s hard to believe he and Trevor Bowles went to high school at the same time — but he’s good at conveying Arnie’s confused desperation.

Director Lindsey Duoos Gearhart paces the play effectively, and choreographer Alisa Williams gets the performers to dance with more exuberance than grace. (If you sit in the first row you risk getting kicked during the more high-stepping numbers.) During the dress rehearsal music director and arranger Rick Shaffer sometimes drowned out the cast members with the accompaniment, but that’s a glitch that won’t be hard to fix. Brian Redfern’s set is a series of simple panels that hang in front of his elaborate construction for Britannicus (Nero’s throne can be glimpsed in the background, house left) but that’s all this show really needs. The music is pretty basic Broadway wanna-be stuff, but it strikes the right sprightly tone for a show that doesn’t take itself seriously — despite a few surprisingly poignant moments — and made the dress-rehearsal audience laugh hard. You will, too.

Backwater Blues plays through Wednesday, November 26 at Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances are 7 p.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays. Tickets are $17 to $20 and are available by calling (619) 688-9210 or online at