San Francisco playwright/lyricist Henry Mach scored veteran lesbian/gay Theater Rhinoceros’ greatest hit with 1990’s “Dirty Dreams of a Clean-Cut Kid,” a nostalgic look back at free-loving Castro Street gays of the ’70s via musical reflections from five men anxiously awaiting HIV test results. His new “Some Love”– midsection of a projected trilogy, debuting at Josie’s Cabaret in the wake of a royalty dispute with Rhinoceros — mines similar terrain to flawed but generally successful ends. Modest cabaret-style requirements of this thematically ambitious musical could parlay well into gigs at gay venues around the nation.
Mach has a new composing collaborator in Darien Martus, and latter’s pre-recorded tracks (ranging in tenor from disco-funk to balladry and patter) are a major plus. Plotwise, the one-note reflection of “Dirty Dreams” now turns toward tentative gay panoramas, bookended by the giddy carnal delights and mid-epidemic “reality” dose that, respectively, started and ended the turbulent 1980s.
Three male couples are focal points here. In Chicago, father/ex-husband/aspiring Republican corporate type Joe (Michael Cameron Benbrook) initiates an unlikely liaison with insecure boytoy Ricky (Nathan Wallick). Asian sweater queen Robert (Anderson Lim) visits S.F. from home base Milwaukee, then sticks around to solidify a passing fling with leather-clad sex worker Anthony (Jay Lasnik). New Yorkers Sam (Derek Lassiter) and Charles (David Foley) are stymied less by racial issues — one is black, the other white — than by the latter’s obsessive political activism and perpetual “anger.”
“Some Love” wants to encapsulate a fairly insular ’70s-grounded gay male experience in song. The uneasy stretch from cabaret format to “book” show (with minimal dialogue) is well served by numbers like the sultry semi-blues “Hot November,” which advances all relationship plotlines in clever fashion. But more often the score resigns itself to self-contained episodes of comic/dramatic tenor (i.e., Ricky’s drug freakout “You Wannit Bad” or Robert’s defensively bitchy “You’re Not the Man I’m Gonna Marry”). Effect is wobbly yet ultimately touching.
It’s easy to pick at this show’s flaws, many of which rest with Mach’s often banal lyrics. His characters are gay archetypes, their attachments more schematic than convincing. The evening seems long at nearly two hours, while crying for a deeper scenario. Still, there’s an inherent sweetness.
Director Kelly Hill’s bare-bones production — even the slim visual bolster of background slide projections could be jettisoned easily — is resourceful and lively. Six performers (well-cast in dramatic terms) do better by their choral/ensemble tasks than in various solo turns. (Foley’s Charles is a notably strong vocal exception.)
“Some Love” is limited in appeal by its focus on a strictly urban, sophisticated pre-AIDS gay male mind-set. Yet the variations it wrings from that focus make for a touching, musically winning night out.