In a time when “transgender” wasn’t a word and homosexuality was illegal, a trans woman refuses to be invisible and shines on the vaudeville stage in Next Stop Productions’ The Pansy Craze. With book, music and lyrics by Avery Jean Brennan, and directed by Dustin George, with music direction by Brennan, the new musical is running at the Randolph Theatre during the Toronto Fringe festival.
The Pansy Craze takes us to 1930s America, behind the scenes of underground vaudeville venues—speakeasies, where booze wasn’t the only prohibited item on the menu. In a bid to out-do the competition, these establishments boasted titillating shows, putting queer performers on the bill to entice customers. When star actress Helen (Stephanie Hood)—recently and conveniently married to Charlie (Shaquille Pottinger) so they can be a husband and wife act—sprains her ankle, closeted Emcee Duncan (Eric McDace, alternate for Teddy Moynihan) decides to put Jeanie (Devin Herbert), who is a transgender woman, into the act. The group has a huge opportunity at an upscale Manhattan place run by Gladys (Kira Renee) and unofficially overseen by Tom (Sansom Marchand), a cop who turns a blind eye to the illegal goings-on so he can have a place to drink. Gladys also has connections with famous vaudeville impresario Norbert (Peter Mundell).
Jeanie, a talented songwriter/performer, illuminates the stage with panache and heartbreaking torch songs. “Pansies”, as the queer performers are called, are okay with establishment managers, so long as they entertain and bring in customers—but Tom isn’t so happy about turning a blind eye to this particular bending of the law, particularly Jeanie, who doesn’t blend in onstage or off. Complicated relationships emerge within the company, with more drama occurring in the wings than onstage at times.
When prohibition is lifted, booze comes out of the closet, but queer performers are no longer welcome—now that these vaudeville houses are above ground, they can’t risk running afoul of the law and losing customers. Refusing to be closeted or forced into a “normal” life as a man, Jeanie sets her sights on continuing her career, and she and Charlie get audition spots for Norbert’s show. And when tragedy strikes this tight-knit group, Charlie finds himself with a life-altering decision to make.
There’s high-energy hoofing and singing from an entertaining cast. Herbert is a clear stand-out as Jeanie; lighting up the stage, they shine in a charismatic performance, full of style, sass and impressive vocal chops that can belt out a tune or break a heart. Lovely scenes and duet with Pottinger, who gives a nicely layered performance as Charlie, a talented and conflicted young man who’s forced to confront his own heart, inspired in part by Jeanie’s chutzpah. “So What if I’m a Pansy” becomes a defiant and touching anthem—for LGBTQ folks and anyone struggling to be themselves.
The Pansy Craze continues at the Randolph until July 15; check the show page for exact dates/times.