×

Broadway Review: ‘Torch Song’

A trim new version of the 1980s trilogy gets a sweet, imperfect staging that can't erase memories of Harvey Fierstein in the original.

With:
Michael Urie, Mercedes Ruehl, Jack DiFalco, Ward Horton, Roxanna Hope Radja, Michael Hsu Rosen.

Following an Off Broadway run at Second Stage Theater last year, “Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song” opened on Broadway Nov. 1 with the same cast and creative team. The following is Marilyn Stasio’s review, dated Oct. 20, 2017, of the Off Broadway production.

In “Torch Song,” an affectionate if ill-considered revival of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” Michael Urie makes a brave but bizarre effort to channel the playwright’s own groundbreaking star performance as a lovelorn drag queen in Manhattan’s 1970s gay society. Everyone fell in love with Fierstein when he played himself (a.k.a. protagonist Arnold Beckoff) in the three plays of his beloved “Torch Song Trilogy.” But as imperfectly directed here by Moises Kaufman, Urie has made little attempt to make the role of Arnold his own.  Arnold may be a professional performer, but he doesn’t deserve to be played as a professional puppet.

At more than an hour less than its original four-hour run time, the trimmed-down show has kept its basic storyline but lost some of its grace notes. It seems strange, for instance, that both playwright and the director should retain certain references that are pure Harvey Fierstein, like the chubby jokes and the broad stage gestures that defined his quirky charm, but hardly apply to the trim new star. Even more grating is Urie’s strained attempt to imitate the writer’s distinctive voice, which sounds something like a frog being scrambled in an eggbeater.

Arnold’s story is as sweet as ever. A success as a drag performer (handsomely costumed by Clint Ramos) known as Virginia Ham, but shy and awkward at matters of the heart, Arnold is desperate for true love and all its trappings — marriage, kids, hot sex — but doesn’t know how to find it.  Lucky for him, he meets a sweetheart of a guy named Ed (a wonderfully honest performance from Ward Horton) at a gay bar notorious for its luridly lighted (by David Lander) backroom.  Urie has fun in these backroom bar scenes, especially when Arnold is taken in hand by person or persons unknown.

You have to love Arnold.  Ed does, but he happens to have a nice, steady girlfriend named Laurel (nice, steady Roxana Hope Radja), which complicates things. But this is 1979, after all, and Arnold wants to show how up-to-date and au courant he can be. So, in a funny scene that unfolds on a gigantic bed designed with tongue in cheek by David Zinn, Arnold and his very young new boyfriend, Alan (Michael Rosen), are staying with Laurel and Ed for the weekend in their country place.

It’s frankly unbelievable that a straight woman would be so gracious about sharing her man with his sometime male lover.  But Laurel is the playwright’s fantasy, a good sport and profoundly understanding.  “There was no fight,” she says about her own relationship with Arnold. “I just pulled back enough to let Ed feel his freedom. No commitments. No pressure.”

This kind of relationship just isn’t in the cards for Arnold, who wants those very commitments and stubbornly persists in looking for real love, lasting love, faithful love — with great sex. As the play progresses, he loses a true love but acquires an adopted son, David (Jack DiFalco), to show off to his overbearing mother, (“the Sylvia Sidney of Brighton Beach”) played by a strangely stiff Mercedes Ruehl. And eventually, yes! He finds true love.

Does this history piece hold up? Yes, in the sense that the show is kind to its characters and true to its dated sensibilities. No, in the sense that the characters are unbelievably sweet and its sensibilities are dated. But the playwright is nothing if not generous to Arnold, who is a real mensch after all. If you want to take him to your heart, you really have to imagine someone like… well, Harvey Fierstein, in the lead role.

Broadway Review: 'Torch Song'

Helen Hayes Theater; 585 seats; $157 top. Opened on Broadway Nov. 1, 2018.  Reviewed in its Off Broadway premiere Oct. 17, 2017. Running time: TWO HOURS, 40 MIN.

Production: A presentation by Richie Jackson, Eric Kuhn & Justin Mikita, Stephanie P. McClelland, Ken Fakler, David Mirvish, Lassen Blume/Karmen Boyz Productions, CJC & Priest/Judith Ann Abras, Burnt Umber/True Love Productions, Caiola Productions/Torchbearers, Jujamcyn Theaters and Second Stage Theater of a play in two acts by Harvey Fierstein.

Creative: Directed by Moises Kaufman. Sets, David Zinn; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, David Lander; sound, Fitz Patton, production stage manager, Frank Lombardi.

Cast: Michael Urie, Mercedes Ruehl, Jack DiFalco, Ward Horton, Roxanna Hope Radja, Michael Hsu Rosen.

More Legit

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]

  • MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOWby

    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content