Not so long ago, in the pre-Stonewall era, if two guys (or gals) were seen in a bar dancing together — or even holding hands — they’d be thrown in the slammer.
Lives were shattered, and these “fruits” and “dykes” lived their days in shame, furtively looking over their shoulders. Proprietors of these same-sex hangouts had to pay off the cops to stay in business, even if the place was a hole-in-the-wall on the wrong side of town.
“Play It Cool,” the nifty little musical conceived by Larry Dean Harris, is not content to simply delve into that forbidden world of shadows, exploring the queer underground scene in Hollywood circa 1953. The show cleverly uses the idiom of jazz, illuminating a parallel between the need for these oppressed misfits to express their true selves, no matter how out of synch with mainstream society, and the off-key, syncopated phrases of jazz music.
On top of that, the story, by Harris and Martin Casella, is told in the hard-boiled, pulpy noir style popular in films of the period, complete with a shady LAPD detective named Henry (Michael F. McGuirk), who is both a player and occasional narrator.
Henry is the gumshoe who extorts payoffs from Mary (the gifted Broadway veteran Sally Mayes), the mannish owner of Mary’s Hideaway, to help keep the cops from shutting the place down. More than just a gin joint, it’s a classy jazz club about to feature Lena (Robyn Hurder), a bleach-blonde femme fatale type with curves in all the right places. The dame is also Mary’s girlfriend.
The club is tucked away in the basement of a nondescript building just off Sunset; the red neon Mary’s Hideaway sign is kept on the inside, out of sight from prying eyes.
When a smarmy young movie producer (Chris Hoch) comes in with a prettyboy named Will (Michael Buchanan) who isn’t quite old enough to legally drink, trouble starts brewing. The producer threatens to steal Lena away with promises of hitting it big. Will, who has left his dead-end hometown in South Carolina to follow his dreams of becoming a singer (and to explore his same-sex urges), allows Mary to teach him how to sing with swing.
Jazz isn’t what you sing or say
It’s who you are inside
It’s the notes you choose not to play
The life that you can’t hide
Staged as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival a couple of years ago, this incarnation features a skilled ensemble — most with major Broadway credits — who belt out those jazz riffs with pizzazz.
Mayes, with her hair cropped short, gives a convincing turn as the ballsy gal with a boatload of secrets, and she scats and wails with flair. As the sultry siren, Hurder is simply a knockout, both in the looks department (aided by Therese Bruck’s dazzling, form-fitting dresses) and with her velvety vocals. Buchanan transitions from callow yokel to self-assured entertainer with ease. McGuirk, the only actor without a Broadway credit, also has the distinction of being the sole cast member retained from the original production. Look for him on a Broadway stage soon.
The smooth grooves, mostly by Phillip Swann and Mark Winkler (who co-wrote “Naked Boys Singing”) and played by an extremely tight, three-piece combo, would not sound out of place at, say, the Village Gate. All are highly accomplished musicians with astounding credits and stacks of award-winning recordings among them.
Under the direction of Sharon Rosen, the noir sensibility has its pleasures and perils. Sure, the vintage hokey language and overblown plot are amusing, but they create a buffer that prevents emotions from hitting hard. Are the cliché images — like the one with a shadowy figure wearing a trench coat and fedora, lurking backlit in a doorway — meant to feel dangerous or cutely ironic?
Like many little tuners, the sexy, albeit tepid “Play It Cool” is more concerned about musical entertainment than plot logic, and the inconsistencies are baffling. What’s more, the sound system is completely wrong for the Acorn Theatre, with over-miked voices emanating from speakers far in the corners, not from the characters.
Come to think of it, this swingin’ piece would have more immediacy if it were set in an actual cabaret-like space, so the audience could feel like ersatz patrons in Mary’s Hideaway, and maybe even toss back a couple of whiskeys. Straight up, of course.
PLAY IT COOL
Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St.
Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat., at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.
Through Oct. 9