EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE, so I guess I should, too.
The new musical at London’s Apollo Theatre could be said to be “The Son of BILLY ELLIOT.” A teen from a working-class home wants to perform in an art that’s utterly alien to his father.
BILLY ELLIOT would seem to have more drama because of the miners’ strike complication. Still, comparing Billy’s ambition to become a ballerino to Jamie’s objective considerably ups the ante.
For in this musical which some wags have undoubtedly dubbed “The Daughter of BILLY ELLIOT,” Jamie makes clear that his career goal is to be a drag queen – “for a job,” he says. “To make some money.”
That’s a novel and valid idea. As many female impersonators will tell you, it’s a business. Most don’t dress by day and their underwear is decidedly masculine until the time arrives to go to work; then they don the panties and all the rest. After the show, it’s over – and NOT a case of tuck everlasting.
Bookwriter-librettist Tom MacRae’s story (based on an idea by Jonathan Butterell) takes a more predictable turn by making Jamie, to paraphrase a WOMAN OF THE YEAR song, “one of the boys who’s one of the girls.” Here’s an out-and-out OUT gay teen that’s proud – perhaps too proud.
As is the case with so many drag queens (Alex Newell in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is a good example), Jamie often acts imperious with a decided I’m-better-than-you demeanor. He sings about his classmates “You’re meh and so-so” as internal thoughts, but we hear them along with “What I got, you have not.” When someone takes this attitude, we’re inclined to want to see him taken down a peg.
That MacRae may want us to instead sympathize with a kid is overcompensating. That could have had its genesis when Jamie’s father first saw his son dressing in mother’s clothes and wasn’t grand about it. It turned out to be one reason why the man eventually left his family.
So Jamie sings about “The Wall in My Head” that his father put there.
It’s one he’s determined to climb over, and we do like and admire him for that.
MacRae surprises us by making Jamie’s mother Margaret extraordinarily indulgent to the point where she gives Jamie an expensive pair of heels as a present for his 16th birthday. (We like too that Jamie is concerned that she spent too much on them, for the family is poor.) Also celebrating is Mom’s pal Ray (a woman), who’s as supportive of Jamie’s career choice as Ru Paul, Lola and Zaza would be combined.
Jamie’s father doesn’t attend the party but has sent a card with money enclosed. Considering his history with his son, the boy should smell the rat we do: Margaret sent him that card. And why doesn’t Jamie recognize his mother’s handwriting?
In the show’s most potent scene, Jamie’s father shows up days later to tell his ex-wife his future plans. Now that he’s about to become a father again, he wants a fresh start; he doesn’t merely want to put his past behind him but wants to obliterate it, too. “Don’t call me again,” he tells Margaret. In fact, he says something substantially worse that gets the audience to gasp, but just in case you get to London …
One might question why Margaret would ever come to love such a lout in the first place. Ah, young women often fall for bad boys, don’t they?
Jamie goes to Victor’s Secret (sic), a shop for drag queens, and meets the proprietor Hugo, who of course understands this lad. Hugo encourages him to perform at a local club, and Jamie – or shall we say his new alter ago Mimi Me – will.
So at school he finds an out-of-the-way closet and, with the help of his friend Pritti, a Muslim girl who worries that she’s becoming a fag hag — her words, not mine – puts on make-up and feminizes his eyebrows. When Pritti says that she must leave to get to class, Jamie won’t let her go. “This is important!” he shrieks. That’s supposed to be funny, too, if you find a person’s self-absorption and lack of concern for others amusing.
Jamie’s teacher catches him mid-make-up and decides to embarrass him by parading him around the school. As ye sew your eyebrows, so you must reap contempt from the school bully. He’s Dean, whom MacRae has drawn as amazingly, shall-we-say, long-tempered.
Dean calls Jamie “gay” and literally repeats the word (and no other) for 13 more times. Jamie’s response is more articulate: “You tragic meathead mini-dicked retard scrounger waste of space wanker!”
Them’s fighting words, but the beating that we keep expecting from Dean – not wishing for, mind you, but expecting – never happens. He only rebuts “I don’t have a small dick” and “Get stuffed.” The worst we’ll see him do is show up at that drag club where Mimi Me will make her first appearance so that he can mock her.
(By the way, would a liquor-serving nightclub let a 16-year-old perform?)
MacRae takes us backstage where three drag queens get off a good line now and then. (Before an entertainer takes the stage, he’s told “Break a nail!”) Alas, they beg comparison with Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura and emerge not nearly as intriguing and inexplicably songless.
If you bought that Jamie would believe that his father sent the birthday money, would you also swallow that he’d send flowers to Jamie on his drag club opening? This gives Jamie the courage to go on, and yet, we have to wonder why he would think that his once-again absent and previously judgmental father would be this supportive.
GYPSY comes to mind again, for Jamie is as nervous as Louise was when she faced her first audience at Wichita’s one and only burlesque theater. Here too we see a novice take the stage — just as the lights black out to end Act One.
What?! We don’t get to see how Jamie did, for better or worse?! We can only take his classmates’ word for it at the start of Act Two that he was splendid when they sing the title song (which sounds a bit like “You Can’t Stop the Beat” — only not nearly as good).
Pritti encourages Jamie to be himself and wear a dress to the prom. Jamie readily agrees. Whether or not he’ll be allowed to do it makes up most of Act Two.
His teacher, though, has a good point when stating “The prom is for everyone. It’s not for you to hijack it.” Suddenly Pritti rethinks her initial view, even after Jamie says this is what he wants to do as a career. She says “I’m going to be a doctor but that doesn’t mean I have to go everywhere swinging a stethoscope.”
Jamie goes to visit his father who’s cruel as can be and reveals he sent neither money nor flowers. That makes Jamie castigate his mother, which again makes him unlikable. Guess MacRae wants us to remember that 16-year-olds are, after all, immature.
Let’s not disclose what happens at the prom, but there’s a funny moment when Pritti arrives in her new dress only to find that fellow Muslim Fatimah is wearing the same one. Thirty-nine pounds they handed out for something to make them stand out …
And standing out among a solid cast is, as you’d expect, John McCrea as Jamie. He captures every nuance of this young man while also letting us see his own inner joy at becoming a sudden West End star.
Dan Gillespie Sells’ music is affable pop-rock that suits all the characters. MacRae’s lyrics are sharp, but – wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles – they don’t have a single imperfect rhyme or false accent. Granted, they’re not at all showy in a way that would make Ira Gershwin, E.Y. Harburg or Stephen Sondheim smile. Still, a 21st century lyricist who abides by a rhyming dictionary is one everyone should be talking about.