nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
May 15, 2005
Growing old is not for sissies. In fact, there seems to be such a mythical fear of aging in the gay community that even a play like Trolls, which is intended as a celebration of age, uses only its two youngest cast members in its print ads: a 20-something in a tank-top (which he never wears in the play) and the youngest “troll” in the cast, who is supposed to be 42.
Even the producers, it seems, are convinced that none of us in this community would be interested in hearing about our own elderly. This, despite the fact that a very large part of any gay theatre audience is always made up of men over 50. And so the men in this play, like its producers, wonder if anyone will notice them, if anyone cares about the lessons they’ve learned or the wisdom they’ve acquired. It seems a silly question to be asking in a world where the straight community seems to have become vainer than the gay community (I don’t see many gay people having plastic surgery on network television), and more than a few gay men over 50 are in better shape than the 20-year-olds. So it is not surprising that Trolls, with book and lyrics by Bill Dyer and music by Dick DeBenedictis, is, more than anything else, a fun and light-hearted musical comedy. No big questions or major revelation. Just an hour and forty minutes of mostly entertaining musical numbers and warm reminiscence, with plenty of memorable one-liners and touching moments.
It is 1998, and a group of close friends has gathered in a home in West Hollywood for a potluck celebration and memorial. Boomie (Dale Radunz), the recently deceased, is a man of 60-something who in his much-too-short life has deeply touched them all. Through each of the friends’ tributes, we learn about the great impact Boomie has had on their lives, and a little about what life was like—and how it has changed—for gay men in this country. Somewhere near the beginning of the show, the spirit of Boomie himself makes an entrance and, unseen by his friends, attends his own memorial, adding commentary and returning the love and respect his friends so generously bestow. The device of having Boomie’s ghost on stage could easily have killed the entire show, but it is actually handled quite nicely. This is partly because Radunz is one of the strongest and subtlest actors on the stage. He also has a great singing voice, and he gets the best solo musical number in the show, "All This and Heaven Too," about all the people he is meeting on the other side.
Both the script and musical numbers are a bit of a mixed bag. There are moments and characters that seem rehashed and uninventive, but the characters usually redeem themselves with moments that work very nicely. Blane (Bram Heidinger), the “kid,” for example, was picked up by Boomie while hustling on Santa Monica Boulevard. Boomie didn’t have sex with him (of course), but took him under his wing and set him on the right path. The duet between Boomie and Blane, however (which I was sure would annoy me) is actually quite touching.
Juan (Albert Insinnia) was a struggling immigrant whom Boomie helped learn English and settle in his new home. His character brings guacamole to the memorial, and often seems like a caricature. But, okay, the Carmen Miranda number is great fun. Jo (Barry McNabb), the now post-operative transsexual, who is more about drag queen camp than tranny “realness,” received the greatest support and encouragement for her sexual reassignment from Boomie who, as it turns out, lent similar support and encouragement to Christine Jorgenson when she made her highly publicized transition. Jo does, however, get the entire crowd of geriatrics sweating to the oldies with a fabulous tribute to club life in the days when dance songs had words worth singing and moves worth remembering. Jo, in the name of camp, also has some truly funny moments including one of the best Judy Garland jokes—of all things—that I’ve ever heard.
I can’t not mention Mark Baker as Terry, the host. I’m guessing he is the oldest member of the cast, and he is certainly the campiest, beating out even the tranny by a nose. He also has comic timing as sharp as a pin, and a great ability to improvise, saving a moment when a drink accidentally spilled all over the floor (it was a preview). He does terrific physical shtick, recovering nicely from several pratfalls, and has far and away the highest kick in the line.
John Hoshko’s musical staging is fun in places and sweet in others. They’re supposed to be old, so Twyla Tharp it shouldn’t be. Director Pamela Hall has found nice moments for all her actors without ever letting things get morbid. She makes the dead man on stage thing really comfortable for the audience, which must have been challenging. If there is a message here it is a simple one: We each have a heritage to be proud of, and a life that is of great value to those we touch. An anthem of gay history written by the departed Boomie is quite touching on the subject, and is thankfully reprinted in the playbill. Trolls is a sweet and simple reminder of those who have come before us, and those who still walk among us who have cleared the path.