In the Spotlight: singular talents hit local stages

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday April 11, 2023
Share this Post:
Performers Tina D'Elia (photo: Vince Thomas), Ryan Patrick Welsh, and Eleri Ward and Julie Benko (photo Rebecca J Michelson).
Performers Tina D'Elia (photo: Vince Thomas), Ryan Patrick Welsh, and Eleri Ward and Julie Benko (photo Rebecca J Michelson).

A breakout glam rock cabaret star; a character actress who plays a whole cast of characters; Broadway's standby success story of the year; and a show tune interpreter like you've never heard before.

Mid-April brings a quartet of singular talents to San Francisco stages for showcase performances. I rang them up and asked them to tell us about their performances.

Ryan Patrick Welsh  

Nocturnal animal: Ryan Patrick Welsh
"Shows in San Francisco usually start so early," said leggy, long-tressed Ryan Patrick Welsh, nonchalantly. "I'm fine owning Sundays at 10pm."

The confidence with which Welsh booked two unusual late-night spots for his "Sex, Camp, Rock 'n' Roll" performances at Oasis this month are well earned. When he debuted the amped-up autobiographical extravaganza last year after developing it through Oasis' arts residency program, it sold out every show.

The 33-year-old belter, who has a degree in musical theatre from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., says that he discovered his path away from traditional Broadway-style performance while singing in D.C. piano bar Shaw's Tavern and at Martuni's after moving to San Francisco eight years ago.

"I learned how to command the attention of a room and got good at off-the-cuff mic work. It's performing, but I get to play myself instead of a character."

That said, Welsh — who performs with a full rock band and backup singer-dancers — is himself quite the character. Some of the funniest anecdotes in his sometimes surprisingly tender show are about supporting himself through sex work for the past six years.

"My mother was not going to miss this big show I'd been working on for so long," he recalled of last summer's premiere. "So I had to call my parents a month before and come out all over again as a sex worker."

Welsh's parents are both showbiz aficionados (For their first date they saw Patti LuPone in "Anything Goes") whose Bette Midler albums and videos he cites as an early influence. But it was only after the debut of "Sex, Camp, Rock 'n' Roll" that he first watched a recording of what is now a creative touchstone.

"I had somehow never seen Sandra Bernhard's 'Without You I'm Nothing'," he said. "And when I finally did, I was like this is it!"

"Sex, Camp, Rock 'n' Roll," April 16 & 23. $25-$35. Oasis, 298 11th St. (415) 795-3180.

Tina D'Elia (photo: Vince Thomas)  

Inner child's play: Tina D'Elia
"When I was a kid, I had these little stuffed toy mice and every one of them had to have a different voice and personality," said lesbian writer-actress Tina D'Elia, discussing the uninhibited glee she brings to her solo show, "The Rita Hayworth of this Generation," now at Theatre Rhinoceros.

"My uncle was a puppeteer, so that might have something to do with it too," she added.

With the zeal of a child given imaginative free reign, D'Elia is becomes puppets and puppeteer, wildly shifting between almost a dozen characters and literally bouncing off the walls in this playpen of a production which she describes as "a queer noir slapstick comedy."

The cockamamie plot takes Hayworth-worshipping ingénue Carmelita from her home in Bakersfield to a revisionist Vegas where she flits between Rat Packy showrooms, a magical portal to the afterlife, and sessions of hot sex with the celebrated "transgender king of blackjack."

D'Elia coos, squawks, growls and even sings a few ditties as she spins around the Rhino stage in 75 minutes of comic abandon. It's a bravely crazy little spectacle.

"The Rita Hayworth of this Generation," through April 23. $12.50-$25. Theatre Rhinoceros, 4229 18th St. (415) 552-4100.

Julie Benko (photo Rebecca J Michelson)  

In from the wings: Julie Benko
"I'm probably the only music theater girl who didn't grow up with 'Funny Girl,'" confessed Julie Benko, 34, whose early Broadway memories more prominently feature the likes of "Rent" and "Spring Awakening."

In fact, Benko — who performs with her husband, Jason Yeager, in the Bay Area Cabaret Series at the Venetian Room on Sunday — had never seen the stage musical or even the Barbra Streisand film version when, in 2021, she was asked to audition for the producers of the recent Broadway revival of the Fanny Brice bio-musical.

"I did watch the movie before I went in for callbacks," says Benko, who went on to be cast as the standby for Beanie Feldstein in the role of Fanny.

Then, between Feldstein's much-gossiped-about early exit and Lea Michele's taking over the role, Benko had the fairytale opportunity to step into the spotlight as the top-billed leading lady for a month-long run.

Having already impressed theater insiders while covering for Feldstein a whopping 26 times in just over three months, Benko became the toast of the town. She continues to play the top-billed role on Thursday nights throughout Michele's run and has begun to see the benefits of a much higher profile, including her booking in the Venetian Room.

Benko has previously played the Bay Area twice, in the first national tour of "Spring Awakening" and in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's 2017 production of the Steven Schwartz/Charles Strouse musical "Rags."

On Sunday, Benko will be accompanied by a four-piece jazz combo led by her musician husband.

"Over the pandemic, we had the chance to work with each other as a duo and ended up recording an album. This show is the West Coast concert debut of the music we recorded."

Like that album, "Hand in Hand," their concert will include a rendition of the signature "Funny Girl" song, "People."

"It's not like the Barbra Streisand version," Benko proudly notes. "We've done it our own way, as a tango."

Julie Benko and Jason Yeager, April 16. $30-$70. The Venetian Room at the Fairmont San Francisco, 950 Mason St. (415) 927-4636.

Eleri Ward  

Life is a cabaret: Eleri Ward
"I enjoy theater music in the context of a show, but I kind of don't want to listen to it on a cast album ever again," said Eleri Ward, who brings her ethereal, guitar-accompanied take on the Stephen Sondheim songbook to Feinstein's at the Nikko on April 20.

Ward, 29, who has previously cited the eccentric pop musician Sufjan Stevens as an influence, says that her favorite musical artist "of all time" is Caroline Polachek, formerly the lead singer for Chairlift, whose two solo albums combine intense, dreamlike sweep with startling intimacy.

"I feel like she reintroduced me to myself," explained Ward, a conservatory-trained singer who has performed in musicals in New York as well as regionally. "I feel like years of being conditioned by performing in musical theater hid me from myself in a way."

"I want to write a musical, but I want to bring the sensibility of lyricism and poeticism and grand stretching melodies that I feel in her work to it."
"I want music to transcend the mundane, not to sound like it could be a conversation or a diary entry."

Of all the musical theater composers she's encountered, says Ward, Sondheim is the one who writes songs that consistently speak to her."

"As a child who was interested in theater, I was exposed to lots of jazz hands and big smiles. But when I first listened to Sondheim as an adolescent, I felt this shared affinity for the shadow of the story, the underbelly of things."

Eleri Ward, April 20. $65. Feinstein's at the Nikko, 222 Mason St. (886) 663-1063.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.