In the Green Room of a New York dive bar, a drag queen prepares to perform her torch song. She looks out at us, in a wig cap and floral satin nightie, one eyebrow drawn and one waiting: “A drag queen is like an oil painting,” she declares with a wink, “you gotta stand back to get the full effect”. It’s a matter of perspective, in other words – stand back and you’ll see the beauty, or at least find it easier to forgive the faults.
It’s the standing back that matters most in Harvey Fierstein’s pioneering classic, Torch Song and in Taylor Made Productions’ admirable, but imperfect, staging. In other words, it’s a matter of perspective. It’s important to know, for instance, that it’s been forty years since Fierstein’s show premiered in 1984. It was initially a four-hour epic.
In 2017, Fierstein trimmed the show down into a tight two-and-a-half hours. When the program for Taylor Made Production’s staging declares it to be ‘The Australian Premier’, it is, importantly, only the premier of this recent version.
Torch Song follows Arnold Beckhoff (Joshua Reuben), a part-time drag queen and full-time neurotic. A hopeless romantic with a Wildean wit, Arnold is smart enough to know that love makes fools of us all, but too in love with the repressed Ed (Scott Middleton) to stand back and see his own foolishness clearly. That, in the end, is up to us. Across ten years told over three acts, we watch Arnold’s love and foolishness play out, as clear as day.
Torch Song is a collection of three plays: International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First! Since its premier, critics have been unanimous: you enjoy the first act, begrudgingly accept the contrived second act and transcend into the arms of the theatrical gods in the final act. Taylor Made Production’s staging sticks to this well-worn path.
Act One is more or a less a one-man show, as Arnold soliloquises about bawdy dark rooms and laments his situationship with the bisexual, Ed. Reuben is a charismatic performer, lithe and energetic. Their accent work replicates Fierstein’s immediately recognisable Brooklyn timbre, only occasionally slipping into caricature. But Act One – and really the show as a whole – depends nearly entirely on his performance and unfortunately he doesn’t quite rise to the challenge.
Arnold is a larger-than-life character, a comedic mix of hammy physical theatrics, barbed take downs and overdramatic sensitivities. He’s a drag queen, in other words. But he is also a real person with a well-honed set of defence mechanisms to mask his insecurities. Reuben tends to overexaggerate punchlines in a way that feels insincere.
Forty years on and Fierstein’s writing is as quick-witted as ever, but it doesn’t take much for his still lively humour to land. It was a shame to see so many comedic beats rushed over or needlessly overperformed in a way that compromised their effectiveness and, crucially, the thinly veiled vulnerabilities they often mask. That being said, Reuben feels much more surefooted in group scenes, and I have no doubt they will sit more confidently in the role as the season continues.
It helps that Directors Cal Robinson-Taylor, Phoebe Anne Taylor also seem more confident in staging the group scenes in Act Two and Three. Act One moves at an inconsistent pace, unhelped by scene transitions signalled by underbaked drag performances from Lady Blues (Melina Wylie).
Sidney Younger’s subtle but dazzling lighting design helps move the interludes along, but they’re either too short or too long, and noticeably under directed. Act Two – a Neil-Simon esq holiday trip to a country estate – had a much stronger control of pace, aided by an ingenious moveable set design and Phoebe Anne Taylor’s hilarious and loving performance as Laurel.
But it is Act Three, as usual, where the show really soars. Melina Wylie is simply outstanding as Arnold’s mother, a tightly wound Jewish mother. She is a walking set of contradictions – aloof and lovingly overprotective, accepting and prejudicial, warm and heart-wrenchingly cruel, and Wylie navigates each warring duality with skill and wit.
Louie Dalzell delivers a similarly impressive performance as David, Arnold’s adopted son, showing a masterful sense of comedic timing. All the while, Middleton’s Ed anchors each scene with an endearing calmness and kind-hearted solemnity.
But this production is more than the sum of its failings, and, standing back, one can see it for what it is: a big-hearted rendering of a queer classic, buoyed by strong ensemble performances and direction that, at its best, lets Fierstein’s writing shine.
From that standpoint, too, it’s easier to take stock of the forty years of history that has passed since Torch Song first appeared, and count this production as a stirring, beautiful and long-awaited addition to its incredible legacy.
Chapel Off Chapel (The Loft), 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Thursday 1 February 2024
Season continues to 10 February 2024
Information and Bookings: www.midsumma.org.au
Image: Taylor Made Productions presents Torch Song (supplied)
Review: Guy Webster