BALTIMORE, June 11, 2014 — Who knew that Baltimore is actually competing with DC as the gayest urban center on the East Coast? Now running at Center Stage, “Wild with Happy” is Tony Award-nominated playwright Colman Domingo’s take on a gay man’s loss of both his mother and lover as well as his unique Cinderella story of healing and restoration.
“I am delighted to bring someone of playwright Colman Domingo’s stature to Center Stage,” says Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah. “We loved this heartwarming comedy when we saw it with Colman at The Public. He is an incredible talent, as both a performer and as a writer, and I’m excited for our audiences to see his work brought to life.”
Mr. Domingo originated the central role of Gil in the original Off-Broadway production of his play at New York’s Public Theater. The current Center Stage production of “Happy” marks the first time that Domingo–who appeared in Lee Daniels’ film “The Butler”–has trusted someone else, in this case Forrest McClendon, to take over his play’s lead role.
“I am beyond thrilled to hand over the reins of the role of Gil to my dear friend, colleague, partner in crime (and my right arm in “The Scottsboro Boys”), Forrest McClendon,” says playwright Colman.
Perhaps not coincidentally, both Mr. Domingo and Mr. McClendon share a Temple University connection. The playwright attended that Philadelphia institution as an undergraduate and Mr. McClendon currently teaches there.
Mr. McClendon has appeared in numerous regional productions, and was a Tony Award nominee for his role in the Broadway production of “The Scottsboro Boys,” where he played opposite Colman Domingo.
In “Wild With Happy,” ably yet unobtrusively directed by Jeremy B. Cohen, Mr. McLendon’s Gil is a grief-stricken young man who’s forced to deal simultaneously with both personal heartbreak and his own mother’s death. Making things worse, Gil’s acting career seems unable to make it to first base. We seem to be meeting him at the point where his life has begun to resemble the title of a 1960s novel: “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.”
But perhaps all is not quite lost for Gil. His outrageous, bigger-than-life Aunt Glo (Stephanie Berry), a sensitive funeral director named Terry (James IJames) and his riotous best pal Mo (Chivas Michael) look to get Gil and his life back on the right track, helping him deal with grief through love and laughter. (Ms. Berry also plays the spirit of Gil’s recently deceased mother.)
What really sets the tone for this outrageous comedy is its early church scene, where Gil’s mother (also portrayed by Ms. Berry) drags him to Sunday service after a late night rent party for which the pastor shames the family. Gil’s fear of hypocritical religion is only compounded by a visit to the funeral home after his mother’s passing.
Mom’s dream sequence and the appearance of her sister Glo to claim her dear departed sister’s personal effects alone are worth the price of admission.
But Mr. Michael’s over-the-top performance as Mo, Gil’s loud, bad hair day with bangs, and urban pitch perfect new companion almost steals the show as well, particularly when his character spirits Gil off to Disney World.
Previously seen at Center Stage in 2012’s production of “Gleam,” Ms. Berry’s many credits include TV appearances on “Law and Order”; in Broadway and regional productions; and performances as well in her AUDELCO-Award-winning one-woman show, “The Shaneequa Chronicles: The Making of a Black Woman in New York.“
Both Mr. Ijames and Mr. Michael are making their Center State debuts in this production. Mr. Ijames has appeared in numerous regional productions, and is the recipient of two Barrymore Awards for his work at Arden Theatre and Wilma Theatre. Mr. Michael has appeared Off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company, Lincoln Center and the Public as well as regionally.
Almost as entertaining as the play was the performance at the opening night after-party thrown by Miss Gay Maryland’s Sue Nami in the theater’s fifth-floor Jay Andrus rehearsal hall. Center Stage is legendary for throwing the best cast parties in the region and the gay pride theme was front and center and done with appropriately trashy good taste.
(Photo above, from left: Chivas Michael, Forrest McClendon, Stephanie Berry, Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, Director Jeremy Cohen, James Ijames, and Dramaturg Catherine Maria Rodrguez. Female, second from right, not identified.)
As for the play itself, on a scale of one to five, opening night was an obvious five for the gender-bender fans in the audience and a fun-filled and more-than-respectable four for the straight Baby Boomer ticket buyers.
“Wild with Happy” Continues at Baltimore’s Center Stage through June 29. Tickets start at $19 and can be purchased by calling 410.332.0033, or by visiting www.centerstage.org. Approximate running time of the play: One hour, forty-minutes, performed without intermission.
Rating: Between 4 and 5 stars out of 5. (See above for details.)