In a phone interview a couple of weeks before the premiere of “Come Out! Come Out!” last weekend, Ronnie Larsen cautiously hinted, “This one is different…it’s special…it could be the best thing I’ve ever done.”
As audiences at the Foundry at Wilton Theater Factory discovered, this musical IS different, IS special and just may be among the prolific playwright’s best works.
“Come Out! Come Out!” is certainly a departure from the type of racy gay plays on which Larsen has built his reputation: “Making Porn,” “Cocksucker: A Love Story,” “Happy Ending.”
But, then again, the 51-year-old has surprised us in the past season with a warm comedy, “Grindr Mom,” and a dark psychological portrait, “An Intimate Evening with John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” both Carbonell Award nominees.
Set in the Roaring ‘20s, “Come Out! Come Out!” is the story of Jacob (Grayson Wade), a relatively flamboyant and ahead-of-his-time, out young man living in New York, and the closeted men he encounters while cruising in Central Park. He has a relationship of sorts with Billy (Zachary Swartout), who is married and sees his regular romps with Jacob as a sinful, yet harmless dalliance. All Jacob wants to do is meet his true love and get married.
Jacob then experiences a whirlwind romance with Edward (Chris Carranza), fresh off the train from Nebraska and more open to the possibilities of their forbidden love. Bearded cub Dom Giovanni rounds out the cast as the widower Norman and also is tapped to play Billy’s wife Magnolia and a very Bea Arthur-esque “Mr. Moon” a la “Mame.”
Larsen largely pieced the story together with the help of 19 popular songs from the era. Most are long-forgotten relics from the vaudeville circuit, but Larsen and exceptionally skilled music director and pianist Bobby Peaco took pains not to alter the lyrics. Some are surprisingly risqué and others — “Masculine Women and Feminine Men,” in particular — foreshadow attitudes that would arise a century after they were composed.
The closing anthem, “If You Want the Rainbow, You Must Have the Rain,” visibly moved audience members who are regularly triggered by the mere first notes of Judy Garland’s signature rainbow song.
What particularly makes the show work is Larsen and co-director Michael Mills’ commitment to the comedic sensibility of the vaudeville era. The sincere and sobering story is counterbalanced by moments of slapstick comedy and pure camp. And, unlike Larsen’s earlier musical, “Now & Then,” “Come Out! Come Out!” tugs at the emotions, but is never cloyingly sentimental.
The entire production is wrapped up into a neat package with choreography by Australian transplant Kurt Phelan. His tap numbers are clever and polished while the soft shoe is smooth and sophisticated. The only confusing moment is a seemingly modern contemporary dance performed by a forlorn Billy and punctuated aurally by sand strewn on the stage.
All four actors are fantastic singers, sounding like a true barbershop quartet in the opening numbers, and even better dancers and, in the intimate Foundry space, the audience is literally up front and center for the intricate tap dances. As the cast settles into their roles, hopefully they will tackle those big moves with a little more subtlety and nimbleness. They’re not in a cavernous theater where every move must be accentuated to be seen (or heard) in the back rows.
There’s so much to like about “Come Out! Come Out!” and Larsen and Mills are exploring opportunities to take the production Off Broadway next. It’s a powerful and entertaining show that will really shine in the city that is its inspiration.
Ronnie Larsen presents the world premiere production of “Come Out! Come Out!” through March 29 at the Foundry at Wilton Theater Factory, 2306 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets start at $35 at RonnieLarsen.com.