Cheeky Fun

When Pigs Fly harks back to the days when gay theater was mostly an unabashed celebration of the gay lifestyle and the joys of being out. In the 1960s, Robert Patrick -- who later wrote the acclaimed Kennedy's Children -- was putting on exuberant skits, shows and revues in tiny venues on New York's lower East Side, and promising to set up acting classes that taught "memorization, punctuality and fabrics." In 1970 came one of the first serious gay plays, the iconic Boys in the Band, which explored the tormented psyches of a group of men gathered for a birthday party. Within a couple of years, rumors began flying about a strange illness that seemed to affect primarily gay men. Everything changed after that. The AIDS epidemic inspired many fine dramatic works, including William Hoffman's As Is and the film Longtime Companion, but frivolity was no longer in style.

When Pigs Fly is a collection of songs, puns, bits and skits that's daring, silly, outrageous, high-spirited and cheeky in every possible way. Presented by Theatre on Broadway, it evokes the joyous, boundary-pushing energy of the '60s, but our understanding of what happened in the intervening years adds a kind of poignance to the celebratory tone and the "I-can-conquer" bravado of the protagonist, Howard. Howard represents the play's author, Howard Crabtree, who died of AIDS shortly before the New York opening of When Pigs Fly in 1996.

The action begins when Howard visits his high school guidance counselor, who makes several career suggestions: plumbing, watch repair, garden supplies and chicken farming. Howard says he wants to succeed in theater. That'll happen, the counselor sneers, when pigs fly. In the spirit of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, Howard determines to prove her wrong, and the result is this revue, in which he and his four co-performers strut and ham, pun and panic, sing their hearts out and occasionally throw a histrionic hissy fit.

Each of the five actors is completely different, and each is a joy to watch. Jim Miller gives Howard a moony, hopeful grin that sets you smiling helplessly in sympathy. Chris Whyde sings a series of Cole Porter-ish torch songs detailing his crushes on such unlikely figures as Newt, Strom and Rush. (I couldn't help thinking that these songs could easily be updated, and "Bush" almost rhymes with "Rush.") Whyde delivers these laments with great feeling and aplomb, along with all kinds of suggestive business with a chiffon scarf. George Pulver shows off a chiseled torso in "Not All Man" and gives a stylish, touching rendition of one of the show's few semiserious songs, "Sam and Me." Todd Peckham has a fine baritone and the kind of presence that kicks up the interest and energy level in every skit he enters. Brad Ramsey is a scene stealer with a coyly interesting face that's by turns puckish and petulant. It doesn't hurt our enjoyment that the cast seems to be having an uproariously good time, and that the audience members, too, are warmly supportive, cheering and whistling, occasionally humming along.

Among the unforgettable numbers are "Wear Your Vanity With Pride" (two of the cast members literally do!), in which the actors are dressed as Restoration fops with huge powdered wigs; "Shaft of Love," a pointed dissertation on Cupid's aim; and the grand finale, "When Pigs Fly," with the actors costumed as the high school counselor's career suggestions, complete with clock headdress, package of pansy seeds and rubber pullets.

Director Nicholas Sugar has given When Pigs Fly vibrant energy and a high professional gloss, and Donna Debreceni's costumes are absolute show-stoppers, but what really makes the play soar is its heart. There are a couple of moments with messages: Whyde segues into a wistful song on the value of laughter; the "Patriotic Finale" to the first act is a rousing, defiant -- but still hilarious -- affirmation of just how integral gayness is to the life and culture of the United States. When Pigs Fly brings a dewy-eyed conviction to the all-American mantra that anyone can achieve his dream with persistence, energy and passion. And the right fabrics.

The Empire Lyric Players have been performing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in Denver for 44 years. This year's offering is The Yeomen of the Guard. It's a little darker in tone than such favorites as The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance, but just as stuffed with clever lyrics and bewitching tunes. The Players' version of Yeomen is a community affair: Many of the performers have worked with the company for years; several members of the large cast (which includes a number of children) appear to be related.

While the acting and presentation are uneven, the fun is infectious and the audience highly receptive. The scene opens outside the Tower of London. A raven gazes from one of the turrets; a couple of women are washing the stone steps. The overture is enlivened by miming: kids playing dice, scolding adults, strolling yeomen. In the Tower, Colonel Fairfax (Jim Kok) awaits execution. Outside, Phoebe (Suzanne Romero), who has fallen in love with the colonel -- and who is pursued by the Head Gaoler (Kevin Crandall) -- laments his fate. Pretty soon, there's a plot afoot to free him, and another entanglement involving Point, a strolling jester played by Guy Williams, and Point's beloved, Elsie (Kylah Magee).

Crandell is a funny, gooney Head Gaoler, and Williams is strong as Jack Point, limber, lively and quick-witted. There are also some good voices in the cast. Romero has a pleasant light soprano, and Kok gives "Is Life a Boon?" gravity and resonance. Magee has a rich and beautiful soprano. Her rendition, with Williams, of "I Have a Song to Sing, O!" brings a moment of genuine depth and grace to the evening.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman