You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Broadway Review: Harvey Fierstein’s ‘Casa Valentina’

The new play by the writer of musical 'Kinky Boots' proves static and superficial, but benefits from an excellent ensemble directed by Joe Mantello.

Reed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, Mare Winningham.

The inspiration for Harvey Fierstein’s “Casa Valentina” was a discreet sanctuary in the Catskills where manly men (with wives and children and other baggage) could get their kicks in the bottled-up postwar era of the 50s by dressing up like girly-girls. But the play doesn’t venture much beyond the facade of its true-life model. Fierstein vividly captures a group of these brave pioneers with their girdles on, and a trim ensemble helmed by Joe Mantello lends them character. But the plot is messy, the action static, and attempts to probe the psychosexual dynamic of transvestism are tentative and superficial.

The whirling dervish of a scribe, who has beaucoup shows behind him and two current hits (“Kinky Boots” and “Newsies”) in play on Broadway, is proud to say (in “Torchsong Trilogy” and all over town) that he began his theatrical career as a drag performer. But that doesn’t seem to have given him any special insights into the supposedly straight males in his play who pack up their prettiest party dresses and dash off to their private mountain paradise at the opening of the season.

Casa Valentina takes its pretty name from the weekend identity assumed by George (Patrick Page), the big, beefy guy with the deep baritone who owns the shabby resort and manages it with his sainted wife, Rita (Mare Winningham, sweet of face, warm of heart), who does all the work.  In due time, it will be revealed that the homey mom-and-pop operation is close to bankruptcy; but for now, it’s the beginning of a spring weekend and excitement is in the air.

Like all summer camps, Casa Valentina is a real place but also a state of mind and, in time, will become a warm memory of happy days long gone.  Mindful of the loaded connotations of such a setting, Scott Pask has gone out of his way to design a place that looks like a real bungalow in the Catskills (with rustic furniture and slapdash decor) and a more intangible space where people can walk through open walls.  Fitz Patton’s soundscape carries whispers of the outdoors, and Justin Townsend’s warm lighting design softens the lines of worry and woe on the faces of these old broads.

The arrival of a first-time guest, a self-conscious young man named Jonathon (Gabriel Ebert), suggests that we might learn something about the irresistible impulses that would embolden such a scaredy cat to duck out on his wife for the joy of staggering around in high heels for a weekend. Then again, a very funny makeover scene, in which the fashion-savvy older guests transform this painfully awkward youth into an adorably awkward girl, broadly hints of flightier fun.

Costumer Rita Ryack has done a swell job of choosing frocks, shoes, wigs, and fripperies (petticoats, handbags, etc.) that are both period appropriate and suitable for the individual characters wearing them. Their outfits aren’t in the least appropriate, let it be said, for schlepping through the woods.  But there’s no Diana the Huntress among these ladies, who couldn’t bear to be far away from their mirrors, anyway.

All it takes is a pale yellow dress and a curly blonde wig to turn Jonathon from a timid mouse into a giddy girl, so delighted with the sight of herself in the mirror that she literally bounces up and down with glee.

A lavender lace cocktail dress and a big, bouffant wig make a kindly old grandmother of Terry, in John Cullum’s sensitively observed perf.  A green brocade number and a slightly askew wig transform sad-faced Larry Pine from a sober judge into Amy, a contented frump. The two partner beautifully in the after-dinner soiree dansante in the barn.

Big fat Bessie (Tom McGowan) is the house clown, saddled with unattractive outfits and excruciatingly unfunny laugh lines, and Gloria (Nick Westrate), who fancies herself in form-fitting numbers, fancies herself regarding anything else that happens to come up.

The fashion plate you really want to watch, though, is Charlotte, who dresses with Chanel chic, accessorizes well, and in Reed Birney’s completely unaffected performance, presents herself as a natural-born woman. As the crusading leader of a new political organization devoted to winning social acceptance for manly transvestites (and keeping despised homosexuals out of her club), she also happens to be the villain of the piece.

Charlotte wields a plot device that finally gets the ladies off their butts and raising cautious questions about their own sexual identity.  But the piece lacks the dramatic structure for any bold discussion of the postwar socioeconomic and political pressures on men — heterosexual and otherwise — that made them act out their fantasies of the dollhouse lives of women.

Broadway Review: Harvey Fierstein's 'Casa Valentina'

Samuel J. Friedman Theater; 650 seats; $125 top. Opened April 23, 2014. Reviewed April 20.  Running time:  TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production: A Manhattan Theater Club presentation, by special arrangement with Colin Callender, Robert Cole, Frederick Zollo, and The Shubert Organization, of a play in two acts by Harvey Fierstein.

Creative: Directed by Joe Mantello. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Rita Ryack; lighting, Justin Townsend; original music & sound, Fitz Patton; hair, wigs & make-up, Jason P. Hayes; production stage manager, William Joseph Barnes.

Cast: Reed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, Mare Winningham.

More Legit

  • Bryan Cranston First Time in Variety

    Bryan Cranston on His Early Roles, Dealing With Rejection and His 'Erasable Mind'

    Following his 2014 Tony Award for best actor as President Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s play “All the Way,” Bryan Cranston is looking to add to his trophy collection this year with his performance as Howard Beale in “Network.” The deranged anchorman — who’s famously “mad as hell and not going to take this [...]

  • Ink Play West End London

    Wary Theater Rivalry Between London and New York Gives Way to a Boom in Crossovers

    Give or take a little tectonic shift, the distance between London and New York still stands at 3,465 miles. Arguably, though, the two theater capitals have never been closer. It’s not just the nine productions playing in duplicate in both locations — believed to be the most ever — with three more expected in the [...]

  • Alex Brightman Beetlejuice Broadway

    How Alex Brightman Brought a Pansexual Beetlejuice to Life on Broadway

    Alex Brightman gives the deadliest performance on Broadway — in a good way — in “Beetlejuice.” The big-budget musical adaptation of the 1988 film directed by Tim Burton has scored eight Tony nominations, including best actor. To play the frisky role, Brightman (“School of Rock”) dons Beetlejuice’s striped suit and an assortment of colorful wigs [...]

  • Santino Fontana Tootsie Broadway Illustration

    'Tootsie' Star Santino Fontana on the Challenges of His Tony-Nominated Dual Role

    Santino Fontana is doing double duty on Broadway this year. The “Tootsie” star scored his second Tony Award nomination this month for his hilarious portrayal of struggling actor Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, the female persona that Dorsey assumes to win a role in a play. The musical, based on the 1982 comedy starring Dustin [...]

  • Dear Evan Hansen

    Broadway Cast Albums Find Fresh Footing With Hip New Sounds, Viral Outreach

    Mixtapes. YouTube videos. Dedicated playlists. Ancillary products. Viral marketing. Epic chart stays. These are things you expect to hear from a record label discussing Cardi B or Beyoncé. Instead, this is the new world of a very old staple, the Broadway original cast recording. Robust stats tell the tale: Atlantic’s “Hamilton” album beat the record [...]

  • Ali Stroker Oklahoma

    Ali Stroker on 'Oklahoma!': 'This Show Doesn’t Follow the Rules and That Is So Who I Am'

    Ali Stroker is no stranger to rewriting history. With her 2015 Broadway debut in “Spring Awakening,” she became the first actor in a wheelchair to perform on the Great White Way. Three years later, she’s back onstage in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” as Ado Annie, the flirtatious local who splits her affections between a resident [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content