"Life is not a brief candle. It is a splendid torch that I want to make burn as brightly as possible before handing on to future generations."
-- George Bernard Shaw
Cinema | Music | Visual Arts | Words | Columns

TEXT-ONLY READERS: Meaningful images are indicated {like this}. Navigation bar at end of page.
{Thom Allison cooing as Mae West} Outrageous
Books and lyrics by Brad Fraser
Music and additional lyrics by Joey Miller
Directed by Brad Fraser
Starring Thom Allison, Lorreta Bailey, Tamara Bernier, Tim Howar, Susan Henley, Karen LeBlanc, Sharron Matthews, Tim Murphy, Ed Sahely, Tim Sell
Premiering at The Canadian Stage Company, Berkeley Theatre, September 28-October 21, 2000
Developed by the CanStage AT&T Canada New Play Development program
Review by Michael Cottrell

"Here lies Craig Russell, 1948 to the year 2000. He died broke, cheated and abused by crooked promoters and agents. Buried in drag, she will be missed"

-- A mock epitaph written by Russell for the Toronto Star

Craning my neck past the patrons lining the bar, my attention is taken off of the performing drag queen on stage to the woman behind me, tapping me on the shoulder.

"Hi, I am Craig Russellís widow", introducing herself as I turn to greet her. Recognizing the woman before me I smiled and said, "Oh yes, hi" Her face lighting up in the smoke-filled room she queried, "Oh, have we met?" "No," I smiled; "I just remember from the past." We smiled at each other and turned back to the drag performer.

Back in 1977, Outrageous!, starring Craig Russell, was the first "queer" movie that I ever saw. (Note: the movie had an exclamation mark; the 2000 musical doesn't) It wasn't that I didn't know who Craig Russell was; I don't know how became fascinated with this female impersonator, but there he was, up on the big screen in my little backwoods theatre.

Brad Fraser brings Outrageous! out of the past into the present or rather, Fraser transports his audience back into the seventies and revisits the story that Russellís roommate/widow, Margaret Gibson, made famous: Butterfly Ward, better known as the movie Outrageous!

I must confess that I attended the stage production with great apprehension. How could Fraser make Outrageous! into a stage play, not only that, a musical! My queer spirit was maternally protective of Richard Bennerís film. With the opening song, I gasped to my boyfriend, "oh my gawd itís Rent gone retro." When I had heard that Fraser had cast Thom Allison as Robin a.k.a. Craig Russell, I thought for sure Brad was going to slaughter my sacred cow.

In a hushed critical snipe I said "Tim Murphy should be playing the lead" as he belted out the hilarious tune "Karen Black", in a style more akin to Russell. During the intermission, I hyperactively ranted and raved and questioned ever-patient boyfriend at how Fraser could cast Allison in the part of Robin. If he was not looking for a stereotype of Russell, why has he cast Liza Conner just as she was in the film?

Boyfriend finally said he didnít know what I was talking about since he had never seen the film. It was then that I was willing to let go, and I went back into the theatre and was able to go where Fraser wanted to take me.

How could Fraser do this to Outrageous!? Through talent -- bold, brazen, queer talent. Teaming up with Joseph Miller, their music and lyrics take the audience back to a time when doing drag was still considered outrageous.

From the opening scene, Fraser approaches the familiar, at least to me, from a different angle. Thom Allison is biracial. Fraser incorporates that into his script.

Through this casting, and the teaming of Allison with Lorretta Bailey as Liza Conner, Fraser develops the characters in their personality and vulnerability. Allison becomes Robin, not Craig Russell. Bailey becomes Liza and, in their quest for change and possibilities, Fraser helps us connect.

{Lorreta Bailey, as Liza}I was blown away by Bailey; she captures the audience through her moods and emotions. Although her voice is not a powerhouse, there is a always a ring of vulnerability to it. It's a voice that begs you to listen and be drawn into the ebbs and flows between clarity and insanity.

Thom Allison sings into a mirror, "Put a Lid On It" to which I am sure every gay and lesbian could relate to with tugs and pangs of our emotional psyche... It is from this point in the show that the character of Robin emerges faster and faster.

{Thom Allison astonishes as Billie Holiday}The second act opens with Allison showing why he was cast as Robin the star. From center stage, Billie Holiday appears in her drug-induced, hilarious world. Robin leaves the audience wanting to see more, and that we are given.

Remember, this is a musical: the emotions and stories are told through song. Fraser has shown that he is not only a good playwright as seen in Chain Saw Love, Unidentified Human Remains, True Nature of Love, Poor Superman, and even Martin Yesterday, but Outrageous showcases that he is an accomplished storyteller in lyrics as well.

Where Fraser and Miller's collaboration with this cast does not hold together is in the ensemble pieces. Millerís full cast numbers are fast and quick-paced, and the voices are blurred by the instrumentals and not packing any lasting punch. Sound is a problem at the Berkeley Theatre: for the cast songs, the sound was left with a tinny ringing to it, being that the speakers were way above the stage and audience.

The Theatre venue is an intimate, small space. Too often I felt that the members were relying on the technology of the mike rather than the power of their voice. It was in the solo and duets, when the cast was focused, that their talent and emotions flowed through and made it work.

Fraser has succeeded in taking us all back to a time of innocence and hopeful expectations. A journey that helps us to laugh and to remember. To remember what was and will never be again. Thank you, Brad, for letting us remember once more...

Craig Russell never made it to the new millennium. His bright burning star quickly fizzled. Change gave way to confusion for Russell. Insecurities gave way to addictions and dependency.

"Of course I love my fans. After all, they made me what I am today -- a broken-down, alcoholic transvestite".

Russell died on the eve of the high holy day of queer spirits, October 30, 1990, with Margaret Gibson/Russell Eadie at his side and... she is missed.

Home | Cinema | Music | Theatre | Visual Arts | Words | Columns
Search | Links