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Oinking out loud

by Jim Gladstone

The Pig (David Bicha) finally achieves liftoff in the over-the-top musical revue "Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly." Photo: Lois Tema
The Pig (David Bicha) finally achieves liftoff in the over-the-top musical revue "Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly." Photo: Lois Tema  

Prepare to snort-laugh, eye-roll, and faux-groan your merry way through the new production of "Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly" at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through June 10. It's a booster shot of theatrical serotonin to get your Pride season off to a smiling start.

This scrappy, pun-packed extravaganza debuted Off-Broadway in 1996, and was first produced here at NCTC 15 years ago. Local treasure Joe Wicht, who now contributes the rollicking piano accompaniment, was one of the multiple-role-playing actors in that 2003 engagement.

The evening's entertainment begins as irrepressible, impractical Howard (J. Conrad Frank, ever dependable) takes the stage in a sort of Cowboy Liberace get-up, complete with white-feathered chaps.

"I'm Dream Curly!" he declares, in a reference to "Oklahoma!" that will tickle the knowing show queens in the audience and fly right by everyone else, who will remain happily distracted by the costume.

"Pigs"' loose-screwed meta-plot has Howard and a quartet of super gay pals mounting an impossibly complicated low-budget spectacle - We're watching it! - to fulfill the showbiz fantasies born of a bullied boyhood. At one point Howard compares his vision to "'New Faces of 1952,' which introduced Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt and Carol Lawrence" to the American public. Mel Brooks and Alice Ghostley, too.

There's zero need to worry that the script's numerous hat-tips to the Golden Age of Broadway will alienate post-Boomers in attendance; there's youthful exuberance and timeless shtick for gays of all ages: a hunky centaur (Philippe Gosselin, who plays all of the shirtless roles, praise Goddess), a "blow me down" mermaid (David Bicha, who pulls faces like taffy), and a trio of Technicolor Victorian fops who give "Beach Blanket Babylon"'s fey French poodles a run for their money.

Composer Dick Gallagher and lyricist Mark Waldrop have even swapped out a few of their original numbers in order to take aim at contemporary targets: a delicious trio of homoerotic torch songs that once licked at the feet of Newt Gingrich, Strom Thurmond and Rush Limbaugh has been retooled in honor of Trump, Pence and Putin. Less successful is a new ComiCon-themed number, but it's the only slack bit in the entire production.

In contrast to Broadway spectacles of yore, "Pigs" can hardly be deemed an "All Singing, All Dancing" extravaganza. In fact, the cast's estimable vocal and terpsichorean skills are often upstaged by the costumes, designed by the team of Wes Crain, Keri Fitch and Jorge Hernandez. In a city where nun's habits and leather gear are regular daily attire and Easter amounts to Spring Halloween, it's quite a feat to create a gotta-see-it-to-believe-it wardrobe like the one on display here.

Director Ed Decker and choreographer Jayne Zaban leverage the cast's diverse talents and physiques to terrific effect. In roles including a hippo-hinded blues diva, big boy Chris Plank makes comic hay of assumptions about size, executing remarkably fleet-footed dance skills and a satin smooth vocal tone. Bicha's physiognomy is such that you can almost smell it when he gives the stinkeye. And boyish Ryan Vasquez' perpetual highbeam smile makes the slithery innuendo of his solos all the more alluring. WonderTwink powers, activate!

"When Pigs Fly" can be fully enjoyed as a kaleidoscopic (sometimes nearly endoscopic) cavalcade of camp, but knowing a bit of its backstory adds an element of poignancy. Echoing the tragic origin-story of "Rent," a temperamentally different but contemporary work, "When Pigs Fly" premiered just months after the real-life Crabtree - an unapologetically flamboyant costume designer who conceived of the show with Waldrop - died of AIDS at 41, just seven months after Jonathan Larsen's death. The inclusion of Crabtree's name in the longform title of the show is a tribute, as is the fact that the emcee character, played by Frank, is called Howard in every production, while other actors who are cast use their real names on stage.

In 1996, the vibrant comic queerness of "Pigs" represented an insistence on optimism and a refusal of assimilationism. I happen to have attended that production and can attest that, to a recently out young man who cowered in the shadow of the plague, the confidence and laughter it stimulated were potent psychological medicine.

"Laughing Matters," one of the two more serious-minded songs that arrive near the end of "Pigs," speaks directly to the need for humor in times of difficulty. But it's the other number, "Sam and Me," that really hits home. It's a song that represents another side of its American era, in which the singer (Gosselin) describes the pain of hiding one's relationship and trying to pass as straight. How lucky many of us are that when we hear this song today, its references feel as dated as Dream Curly.

"Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly," NCTC through June 10. Tickets from $35. www.nctcsf.org.

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