Review: ‘Ghetto Superstar: The Man That I Am’

Are solo shows the new self-help tool? Seems that half a story to tell, no matter how familiar, and a handful of songs to sing now are considered juice enough to demand a spotlight, particularly if the show doubles as a therapeutic journey toward self-acceptance. Bearing the imprimatur of the Public Theater, Billy Porter's "Ghetto Superstar" is an ably assembled, lustily sung tour through the performer's Pittsburgh roots, his religious upbringing, his experience of childhood abuse, struggle with his homosexuality and escape into Broadway musicals, which eventually beckoned as a career. But heartfelt as it is, Porter's story ultimately feels like refried "Oprah" fodder.

Are solo shows the new self-help tool? Seems that half a story to tell, no matter how familiar, and a handful of songs to sing now are considered juice enough to demand a spotlight, particularly if the show doubles as a therapeutic journey toward self-acceptance. Bearing the imprimatur of the Public Theater, Billy Porter’s “Ghetto Superstar” is an ably assembled, lustily sung tour through the performer’s Pittsburgh roots, his religious upbringing, his experience of childhood abuse, struggle with his homosexuality and escape into Broadway musicals, which eventually beckoned as a career. But heartfelt as it is, Porter’s story ultimately feels like refried “Oprah” fodder.

Dishing up intensely private stories of childhood molestation and trauma for public consumption and healing, the daytime talkshows inevitably have dulled receptiveness for all but the most harrowing of these accounts. On top of that, it seems the majority of “American Idol” contestants bellow their lungs out to seek release from lives of anonymity, awkwardness and burning dreams. Both those factors – coupled with a vocal style with more power than passion or pain – rob Porter’s show of distinctiveness and emotional heft.

As cabaret entertainment, “Ghetto Superstar” has a sassy verve that’s perfectly engaging. Mixing original compositions with pop songs and showtunes, accompanied by a four-piece band and two backup singers, Porter flamboyantly traces his life B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (after “Dreamgirls”).

Given that the performer is not exactly a household name (Porter’s credits list a “Star Search” victory, a string of minor film and featured Broadway roles, plus concerts and multiple appearances on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show”), he identifies himself clearly enough in the opening number. “Black Broadway Bitch” defiantly lays his claim to the solo stage regardless of the fact he’s no Elaine Stritch.

The show then segues into various biblically tagged sections: In the Beginnin,’ The Angel Holliday, Runnin’ (The Prodigal Son), 40 Days/40 Nights and the inspirational wrap-up, Preacher Man.

First seg recaps Porter’s illumination as a nascent diva when he heard his first church solo at age 4, his mother’s concern that he could play hopscotch in his sister’s pumps without falling, his persecution by neighborhood bullies for his “sissaciousness,” and his expectation that stepfather Bernie would help make a man of him. Instead, Bernie used Hustler mags as teaching aids in birds-and-bees talks that progressed to years of mutual fondling from age 7, until a hellfire sermon convinced young Billy to adopt “homo no mo'” as his credo.

At the same time, Porter’s motto was “to sing as high as I could, as loud as I could, for as long as I could.” This is illustrated in a funny episode in which he croons a torchy version of “Where Is Love?” that borrows from Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone, while auditioning for “Oliver!,” and is crushed after only landing the part of Fagin. Release from depression comes during the 1982 Tonys telecast, when Jennifer Holliday and her fellow “Dreamgirls” cast members beamed into Porter’s kitchen, changing his life forever.

The fixation on that particular Broadway musical is amusingly conveyed in “It’s All Over,” with Porter singing both Curtis’ and Effie’s parts, and later, on the emotional roof-raiser “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” brashly replicating Holliday’s powerhouse delivery and singular phrasing.

The rest of the show recaps Porter’s grind through a theme park show (cheesily titled “Dancing Feats”), boy-band tours and failed auditions, not to mention a vicious beating and a troubled initiation into regular gay sex in the Bethesda Hilton.

Porter campaigns too consciously for pathos, and he’s not a subtle enough actor to dredge up much genuine emotion. His act is more effective in its lighter moments, like emulating “Solid Gold” dancer Darcel Wynne or frenetically hurtling through “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Maniac” during the six-shows-a-day theme park stint.

Major personal breakthroughs for Porter come with the death of Bob Fosse, just as a professional connection was looming, and the death of his stepfather, which allows him to see his childhood sexual experience for what it was. But this, along with the struggle of his religious, disabled mother to accept Porter’s homosexuality, feels too self-consciously packaged to be truly stirring.

Written with various collaborators, Porter’s original songs are infectious funk and soul numbers, but their lyrics lack the incisive ability to nail his story or propel a narrative. And while gay and black issues are touched upon throughout — as well as the tough-to-crack aspects of the music and theater biz — there’s no driving political thrust to crank up the power. “Ghetto Superstar” may be about being “The Man That I Am,” but Porter’s spiritual, sexual and professional formation as traced here feels underwhelming, no matter how ironically intended the title.

Ghetto Superstar: The Man That I Am

Public Theater/Joe's Pub; 150 seats; $45 top

Production

A Public Theater presentation in association with City Theater, Pittsburgh, of a solo show written and performed by Billy Porter. Directed by Brad Rouse.

Creative

Music supervision and orchestrations, James Sampliner; musical staging, A.C. Ciulla; vocal arrangements, Porter. Costumes, Miguel Angel Huidor; lighting, Chad McArver; production stage manager, Damon W. Arrington. Opened March 6, 2005. Reviewed March 3. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

With: Billy Porter, Sasha Allen, Brandi Chavonne Massey.
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