Harvey Fierstein’s glorious voice, that frog with a human stuck in it, remains so powerful you might swear you still hear it, loud and, well, loud in a Torch Song that can often only shout over the Harvey-shaped hole at its center.
Last year’s hit Off Broadway revival, Torch Song (nee Torch Song Trilogy, the award-gathering marvel from 1982 that introduced Fierstein to the world) opens at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater tonight, its oh-so-cute bunny slippers in place. Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) and Oscar-winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King) reprise their Off Broadway performances as the big-hearted drag queen Arnold Beckoff and his caustic, disapproving but down-deep lovin’ Ma.
Okay, so the slippers fit better than the roles that were custom-made way back when by Fierstein and a soon-to-be-Golden Estelle Getty. And no some of the gags don’t land. Urie is too trim for big-boned jokes, Ruehl isn’t the tiny Getty-sized Getty. Director Moisés Kaufman and Fierstein have streamlined things, not ideally but smoothly enough. The play’s connective tissue was always more spirit than plot anyway.
And even with the cuts, Torch Song seems like the pal you haven’t seen in ages, forgotten charms resurrecting themselves before your eyes. So we re-meet Arnold (drag name Virginia Ham, one of those non-working size jokes) backstage at the International Stud bar in 1971, sitting at his dressing table transforming himself into Virginia, unspooling the soliloquy that, in ’82, announced the arrival of a singular theatrical voice and a character whose brash combination of gay pride, sad-sack vulnerability and unflagging insistence on love and recognition was a small riot in itself. Even now, we understand why hunky bisexual Ed (Ward Horton) is on-the-spot smitten.
From the “International Stud” segment – including the notorious backroom backdoor encounter, here played too silly by half – Torch Song moves ahead several years to “Fugue In A Nursery,” the section played out on a large bed by the now-foursome: Arnold and his new, young and very beautiful boyfriend Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen), and Ed and his open-minded (or, you know, ponderously naive) wife Laurel (Roxana Hope Radja). It’s all very Noel Coward, as Laurel says.
Finally, there’s the post-intermission “Widows and Children First” segment, in which we learn that in the preceding five years Alan was murdered in a gay-bashing, Ed has separated from Laurel, Arnold is foster-parenting a gay teenager every bit his wisecracking equal (Jack DiFalco) and, Torch Song‘s piece de resistance, Mrs. Beckoff is blowing in from Miami, no clue about the kid and clinging to her better-left-unsaid defenses.
Whatever humor existed in a shocked Ma’s mistaking the 14-year-old boy for Arnold’s new lover is long gone, and the comedy of errors now plays like an especially icky Love, American Style rerun. The misunderstanding passes quickly enough, though, and Ruehl is a pro – she sells the shock – but some real damage is done: The creeping feeling that Torch Song is more dated than we’d hoped takes hold and won’t let go. The Boys in the Band, that elder gay touchstone revived last season, made a much better case for itself.
As if to confront and wrestle down any datedness head-on, Kaufman and his cast go broad. Like, vaudeville broad, with Urie doing his damnedest to drown out all memory of Fierstein’s foghorn by calling forth a bizarre vocal affectation somewhere between Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion and Hanna-Barbera’s Snagglepuss. I’d like to think of it as an homage to theater’s great nances, but I’m afraid it’s just cartoon Virginia ham.