In “The Nance,” Douglas Carter Beane’s extraordinary new play set in 1937, during vaudeville’s waning days, creaky-joked, groan-inducing broad theatricality is the background for a heartbreaking tragedy about a man trapped in a sense of himself and his place in the world that puts the love he longs for out of his reach.
Chauncey Miles is a vaudeville star. He’s a nance, an effeminate man who spouts puns and doubles entendres in routines and often gets the upper hand over the straight — in both senses of the word — man. Chauncey, unlike others who play the nance role, is actually gay, and Beane immediately sets up the conflict between Chauncey’s “out there” public image and his tormented private life. Trying to steer clear of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s crackdown on deviancy, he searches for assignations in a restaurant automat in a brilliant opening scene that lays out the dance of cruising and furtive connection between men seeking sex with one another.
It is there, amid coded speaking and paper folding that Chauncey meets Ned, a much younger man from Buffalo. Chauncey assumes Ned will be a passing trick, but instead Ned falls in love with him and decides to join the vaudeville troupe. Together, they set up housekeeping in Chauncey’s Hell’s Kitchen basement apartment.
When the mayor, cleaning up the city in advance of the 1939 World’s Fair, goes after indecency in vaudeville, Chauncey’s act becomes a target. Rather than laying low, he challenges the city’s enforcement on stage and is jailed. When he returns to vaudeville, he is no longer allowed to play a nance and instead appears on stage in women’s clothing, which apparently does not run afoul of LaGuardia’s sense of decency. Chauncey, however, is humiliated, feeling his art has been corrupted. And his internalized homophobia prevents him from truly embracing his one salvation — Ned’s love.
With the help of John Lee Beatty’s set and Ann Roth’s divine costumes, Beane intersperses Chauncey’s story with subplots about New York politics, unions, and wonderfully cheesy vaudeville routines. “The Nance” perfectly evokes vaudeville’s end days both visually and emotionally.
Director Jack O’Brien deserves high praise for negotiating a complex narrative coherently while capturing the gritty joy of a down-at-heels vaudeville world. His cast is flawless. Lewis J. Stadlen gives an outstanding performance as company manager Efram, who is willing to tolerate Chauncey’s homosexuality. The troupe’s girls, played by Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber, and Andréa Burns, are dead-on types but also fully realized characters. Jonny Orsini gives a stunning Broadway debut as Ned, convincingly and movingly changing from naïve country boy into a man on the brink of maturity.
Nathan Lane in the title role gives what may be the performance of his career — though his track record of topping himself has made virtually everything he does an event. He is as brilliant at the arcane vaudeville shtick as he is at subtly conveying the heartbreak of Chauncey’s offstage life. It’s a perfectly calibrated performance notable for its integrity and in balancing elements that illuminate a culture, an art form, and a man. Lane’s is a generous performance, and his chemistry with Orsini is real and affecting.
“The Nance” is not to be missed.
Anyone familiar with Constantine Maroulis knows he sings in the overwrought, high belt style popularized by “American Idol.” Deborah Cox is an established R&B singer with a truckload of hit singles and a distinctive, idiosyncratic style and sound. They are legitimate music stars, and those buying a ticket to the revival of “Jekyll and Hyde” know what they’re getting into — and it’s what they want. But they better move quickly. The show has announced a May 12 closing.
Maroulis nails his big first act number, “This is the Moment,” and his second act assault on “Transformation,” done as a duet with himself in a video, is rock-show slick. Cox is more confident in ballads like “Someone Like You” and “A New Life” than she is with the more classically Broadway “Bring on the Men,” but she is exciting when she kicks into full diva mode.
Simply put, “Jekyll and Hyde” is perfect to showcase their talents.
Neither of them can act worth a lick, but Leslie Bricusse’s lame book was never anything that demanded Actors’ Studio-level characterizations. What Maroulis and Cox bring to the table is their ability to sing the heck out of Frank Wildhorn’s pop-rock, lung-wrenching power ballads. The result is much more like a rock concert with a story — and replete with heavy amplification and tons of stage smoke — than a traditional musical.
Teal Wicks does a fine job as Emma, the girl Jekyll is supposed to marry before his transformation into the evil Hyde. Her second act number, “Once Upon a Dream,” is sung beautifully and makes a nice theatrical counterpoint to Cox’s more aggressive and throaty sound.
Jeff Calhoun hasn’t so much directed the show as moved stuff around and created settings for Maroulis and Cox, surrounded by a largely generic ensemble. Tobin Ost’s sets and costumes are undistinguished, except for the red underwear and its variations he created for Cox to underscore her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role. The book is full of bromides and clichés that are generally laughable, but that doesn’t matter much if you’re willing to go along for the ride.
If ever there were a production that is what it means to be, this is it. If you love seeing Cox and Maroulis do what they do so well, go and have a great time.
THE NANCE | Lyceum Theatre | 149 W. 45th St. |Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $37-$132 at telecharge.com or 800-432-7250
JEKYLL & HYDE | Marquis Theatre | 1535 Broadway at 45th St. | Mon., Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Tue., Sun. at 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $50-$135 at ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929