Gender roles

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ONE OF THESE GIRLS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER | Walter Lee Cunningham Jr., right, plays his character Frenchie sometimes as a girl, sometimes as a cross-dresser, in Dallas Theater Center’s wild and sexed-up production of ‘Cabaret.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

Life is a drag-aret, old chum — at least it is for Walter Lee Cunningham Jr., who gets all girlie for his role in DTC’s sexy, edgy ‘Cabaret’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Getting cast in Cabaret was a plum gig for Walter Lee Cunningham Jr. Since moving to Dallas from his native Abilene in 2007, Cunningham has been performing around town in shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Caroline, or Change. But he had taken off nearly a year before he auditioned for the Dallas Theater Center’s spring musical.

So when he got that call that he’d been cast as Frenchie, “one of the dancers in the Kit Kat Klub,” he was thrilled to be making his DTC debut.

Then he showed up for the first costume fitting,

“That’s when I found out I would be playing a girl,” he says.

Yes, he would be in the ensemble — only not as a Kit Kat boy as he had assumed, but playing one of the female chorines.

That was a surprise for sure, but wasn’t such a big deal for Cunningham: Since 2004, he’s performed drag under the name Jada Fox at clubs around North Texas, including Station 4, the Drama Room and the Rainbow Lounge. No, it was really when he saw his costume that he had his first big gulp! moment — there simply wasn’t that much of it.

“It kind of freaked me out a bit,” he says. “When I do drag, I wear pads to give myself the physique of a girl. Without them, I have the body of a boy.”

Being clad only in a bra, lace panties and sheer stockings didn’t give him much to play with — or hide behind.

As with drag, maintaining the illusion of femininity requires a man to, ummm, “tuck.” That’s not so hard when donning an evening gown for a 20-minute drag show; it’s quite another for a two-hour musical that requires high kicks.

Let’s just say Cunningham has to work harder than anyone else onstage not to let his Pride flag wave too proudly.

“I have to worry about my junk,” he says frankly. “Something could very well pop out. You just have to make it work.” (So far during previews, that hasn’t happened, though it has occurred backstage at unexpected moments.) He also has to sing an octave above his normal range. All in all, it gives new meaning to Faith Whittlesey’s dictum, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did — only backwards and in heels.”

Performing as a female impersonator certainly prepared Cunningham for this role. As with acting, drag requires the creation of a character, and Jada Fox has been described as “a black Barbie doll — I’m not the bitchy queen, it’s just not me.” (When pressed, he compares his persona to Sahara Davenport, the Season 2 contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.)

It’s all part-and-parcel with the concept of the show, a sexed-up, wildly racy updating of “the divinely decadent Sally Bowles,” a British showgirl living in Weimar Germany when everyone was sleeping around with everyone else — male, female … even Nazi. Joel Ferrell directs and choreographs, turning the floor of the Wyly Theatre into a real cabaret with some café-table seating. That gives Cunningham the opportunity to interact with the audience in ways neither he nor most of the attendees are quite used to.

“There’s definitely a game of ‘spot-the-boy,’” he says. “I can see the audience, especially the women, trying to figure me out, It’s kind of funny. It gives me a bit to play with. I’m not trying to freak anyone out, but there was this number [at a preview] where I was looking at these guys and they refused to look at me.” He took it as a challenge.

It becomes easier to spot-the-boy during Act 2, where Cabaret ventures toward Zumanity territory with explicit nudity — none of which bothers Cunningham.

“I personally don’t care — I’m very comfortable with my body,” he says. (At 25, he says he eats all he wants to and only occasionally works out and yet still maintains his lean physique.)

So, is Frenchie a real girl, or just a cross-dressing guy living the gay life in decadent interregnum Berlin? Even Cunningham’s not sure.

“They never told me exactly what they wanted,” he says. “It’s a choice I get to make. I kind of play with it — sometimes I’m really a girl and sometimes not.”

Unless, of course, he pops out of his costume during a performance. At that point, the audience pretty much gets to make the decision for him.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

New and old

From creaky Victorian melodramas to well-worn musicals, something’s afoot

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

CRISPNESS, CAROL  |  Wendy Welch’s parody of Carol Channing is a spectacular highlight of ‘Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits’ from Uptown Players.
CRISPNESS, CAROL | Wendy Welch’s parody of Carol Channing is a spectacular highlight of ‘Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits’ from Uptown Players.

ON THE BOARD
FORBIDDEN BROADWAY’S GREATEST HITS

at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Aug. 29.
UptownPlayers.org

SHERLOCK HOLMES IN THE CRUCIFER OF BLOOD
at Theatre Three, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Through Sep. 5.
Theatre3Dallas.com

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE,
2819 Forest Ridge Road, Bedford. Through Aug. 22.
OnStageinBedford.com

Every January, Uptown Players’ fundraiser Broadway Our Way takes songs from musicals, adds a large cast and performs a revue, as the men sing the women’s parts and the women sing the men’s. So when Tyce Green steps onstage in Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits in a red wrap dress, doing Patti LuPone doing Mama Rose better than Patti herself (he’s just as crazy), you might think but for the sweltering heat you’re watching an encore — outtakes from last season’s fundraiser.

That is the curse and the joy of this show, mined from the long-running satire of Broadway seasons that has played off-Broadway for decades. Is Uptown Players cannibalizing itself or just giving the audience more of what it wants? Let’s go with the latter.

Aside from Green, there’s no gender-bending in the musical numbers, which tweak songs from The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Bob Fosse and other legends of theater who deserve to be taken down a peg for the impudence of being successful.

A small risk of the show, in fact, is that it demands a working knowledge of musical theater in order to get most of the jokes. (Uptown Players’ theater-queen heavy subscriber base is safely in that camp.) Skewering Idina Menzel presupposed most people know who the hell Idina Menzel is. But if you do, the Defying Gravity number is priceless.

Certainly the cast members, who cycle through costumes like Cher on speed, are at home with the humor and the music. All are talented, though Wendy Welch steals the show, first with a grotesque parody of Carol Channing then as a fright-wigged Fantine from Les Mis — making a twofer attack on poor LuPone. Don’t worry though — they kid because they love. And there’s a lot of love here.

Sherlock Homes
PROBLEM SOLVER | Chuck Huber, right, makes for an engaging Sherlock Holmes in Theatre Three’s talky ‘Crucifer of Blood.’

When you name your play Sherlock Holmes in the Crucifer of Blood, here’s a suggestion: Get to Sherlock as quickly as possible. The prologue of this play really should be called a prolong — it slowly lays the foundation for the plot with needlessly talky exposition before we have any idea of Victorian London’s premiere consulting detective will figure in. And it’s not even set in England, but in India! Talk about your Black Hole of Calcutta.

Too bad director Jeffrey Schmidt didn’t turn that half-hour sequence and make it a sharply-edited 15-minute video, because once we get to the heart of the play — Holmes’ inescapable logic flawlessly unraveling a twisted (though not especially interesting) mystery that’s bits of The Mummy and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, though hardly the best bits — the play gets fun.

The first time that Holmes, played by Chuck Huber, off-handedly deduces the ownership of a watch presented to him by Dr. Watson (Austin Tindle, wearing an awkward false moustache that looks like it fell off a pair of plastic novelty glasses), the audience titters with delight. That’s what we’ve come for, not lepers and pith helmets and a box of jewels that looks like an accessory snatched up from Pottery Barn.

Despite a few line flubs, Huber makes an engaging Holmes, though Jakie Cabe, as the incompetent flatfoot Inspector Lestrade, may be the only one who fully explores the small amount of comedy there is; Paul Giovanni’s 1978 play has too much creaky dialogue to feel very modern otherwise.

As a Gollum-like hoarder of his precious lucre, Gregory Lush has the best accent in the bunch, plus tremendous brio as a queeny old military officer.

Schmidt’s failure to punch up the beginning as a director is almost made up for by his inventive set design and Aaron Patrick Turner’s endlessly intriguing costumes. Using style to mask weaknesses in substance? Elementary, my dear.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a charming musical with a funny but sentimental script by Rachel Sheinkin and inventive songs by William Finn that are disarmingly poignant about the stresses of childhood. The show practically sells itself.

That’s especially true in the production from OnStage in Bedford, which, sadly, oversells. Way, way oversells. The director, Kyle Macy, doesn’t seem to trust in the material, having his cast take what should be Clare Danes in My So-Called Life and turning them into Screech from Saved by the Bell. Use your inside voices, kids.

Kristin Spiers as a former spelling champ, Amanda Gupton as a tender speller and Phillip Cole-White as a punk “comfort counselor” get their characters best (and the women are both lovely singers), though they don’t quite make up for blahness of the others. Still, if there’s ever been a show that could withstand a bad production, this one might be it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 13, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas