This Torch Song needed to have its torch lit! I saw the original Torch Song back in the Eighties with a younger Harvey Fierstein and his unmissable, low, rumbling voice. I remember as a young man in my twenties – I was blown away by every single scene. I had never seen a drag queen – much less the preparation that drag queens go through to complete the transformation. I had never been to a gay bar (sheltered, I know) much less a gay bar with a “back room.” I couldn’t imagine an entire scene of a straight couple and a gay couple shacking up together and swapping partners – all played out in a scene that takes place on a stage-filling bed. And then that big coming out scene with (in the original, Estelle Getty) It changed my world – and clearly it opened the door for Will and Grace, Modern Family and the inclusion of gays in a hundred stories, movies and TV shows to come. It changed the world for gay men in the entertainment world – for sure!
I was curious how this production done some 25 years later was going to play out. Was it going to be a museum piece serving as an homage to the original? Were we going to go back and re-experience the magic that Harvey created on stage? OR – would this play in its now shorter – one intermission long – draft having something new to say to the audience?
It all begins with Michael Urie taking over the central role! Now I love Michael Urie – that should be clear to my readers from reviews of all his other plays – and I see ALL his plays. How was I going to experience this casting choice? My feelings were mixed. He is certainly one of the funniest men working in New York – but some of what he brought to the table just didn’t work for me. He got the Jewish humor for sure – but I did sense he was also trying to channel his best Harvey impression. It did pull me out of the story at times. AND Michael is so young and cute. Harvey was heavier, more disheveled – more like the guy who sits at the end of the bar and doesn’t have a line waiting to talk to him. I felt more for Harvey as he was the underdog in the cruising world of gay relationships – but I couldn’t imagine Michael Urie having any problems. There was little pathos here. Then in Act 2 – Fugue in a Nursery – Michael Urie goes on a vacation with a cute young hustler to stir up some jealousy for his love interest – and all the characters are shocked that he is with someone so young and cute – but again the cutie seemed like the perfect date for Michael Urie. The age discrepancy and discrepancy is a hottie vs. a “nottie” just wasn’t there.
In the original you never forgot that Harvey was first and foremost a drag queen having difficulty navigating the world as a gay man looking for a simple man to love and form family with. After Scene 1, I forgot that Michael Urie WAS a drag queen. It was too easy for him to drop this facade and navigate relationships without this barrier.
With all of these factors above, this torch song just didn’t have conflict. It pined for a love that just never seemed to be possible, but I never saw the heart breaking struggle. Harvey always covered his breaking heart with his humor – but the heart was indeed breaking below. Michael got the jokes – and spun them off beautifully, but the pain showed up too late in the story. Conflict and pain certainly made for a beautiful final act with his mother and burgeoning family – but I wanted the “torch” lit earlier.