A two-man one-man show: salute to George Michael at the Curran

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday January 23, 2024
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Rory Phelan and Craig Winberry in 'The Life and Music of George Michael' <br>
Rory Phelan and Craig Winberry in 'The Life and Music of George Michael'

Gays of a certain age, brace yourselves. The days of "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" are long gone. "Older" is officially a golden oldie.

And with "The Life and Music of George Michael," which plays a sold-out performance at the Curran Theatre on February 3, the Wham-bam leather man hunk of your teenage dreams has joined the wizened, grizzled likes of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash on the repro-retro "concert experience" circuit.

The Bay Area Reporter spoke with the two actors who play Michael, a late-blooming gay activist who died at age 53 in 2016, at different stages of his career.

Rory Phelan in 'The Life and Music of George Michael'  

Young Gun
"My mum is a huge fan!" said actor-singer Rory Phelan, 31. The native Brit who plays Young George in the touring production, which features a live band and backup singers, recalled his mother "dancing around the kitchen doing the 'Wham! Rap.'

"When I first became more aware of George Michael," he confided, "I didn't really make the connection between him and Wham!"

Fair enough for a lad whose own childhood pop idolatry took place at the altar of the Spice Girls and their manager Simon Fuller's knock-off group, S Club 7, who he saw perform three times, tagging along with his older sister.

"We knew all their dances," he recalled with a combination of pride and embarrassment.

Phelan, who is teen-idol handsome, has toured the U.K. in musicals including "Heathers," "Grease," and an '80s jukebox show, "Club Tropicana," coincidentally named after an early Wham! Hit.

He's also straight, which seems oddly appropriate in conjunction with the largely upbeat, carefree dance tunes and swoony ballads he performs in the portion of the show dedicated to Michael's time in Wham! and early solo success; a period in which Michael hid inner inklings of his own homosexuality from the public, and even himself.

In interviews later in his career, Michael discussed having relationships with women and later considering himself bisexual before eventually identifying as gay at a point that coincided with his emergence as a solo artist.

Older and wiser
In the second act of the show, the role of Older George is taken up by New York-based performer Craig Winberry.

"When I was a kid, my brother would blare Wham! from his stereo," noted Winberry. "For months on end, anytime 'Wake Me Up Before You Go Go' came on, I would run out into the hallway and dance around, singing at the top of my lungs. Eventually, I saw the music video and I was obsessed with George's hair."

Craig Winberry in 'The Life and Music of George Michael'  

Even as a boy, Winberry picked up on more than youthful exuberance in Michael's stage presence.

"At first, I connected through the voice, the beats and the instrumentation. As I got older, I began to sense we shared an interest in things that at the time weren't really talked about. [The song] 'Father Figure' was a moment that made me stop and say, 'Wait, I think I'm picking up on something here.' I wasn't really sure at the time exactly what it was."

Winberry continued, "Over his career, I was attracted to the same elements in his music, fashion and life. I always wanted to see what he was going to share next. What was he telling us? I always felt he was a North Star."

Like many gay men who thrilled to the homoerotic vibe of Michael's 1980s and early 1990s solo songs and videos, including "I Want Your Sex," "Fastlove" and "Cowboys and Angels," as well as the tiptoes out of the closet represented by his contributions to the 1992 "Red, Hot + Dance" AIDS benefit album and Freddie Mercury tribute concert, Winberry recalls being disappointed when Michael was publicly outed in the wake of being arrested for public cruising in 1998.

"WTF?! He was doing what?" remembered Winberry of his reaction. "But after the dust settled from the scandal, I felt he was standing stronger in his Pride years. And as great artists, do, they create and share.

"The "Outside" video [which openly mocks police sting operations like the one in which Michael was entrapped] was an outstanding contribution in so many ways. I respect his strength."

Feeling free
In preparing for the show, which began touring in 2019 and went on hiatus over the pandemic, Winberry "devoured any footage I could find. Most things I found jarred certain memories. The revisit had a profound impact. Material that had come out when I was younger at a time I was navigating things in life now had me seeing it from the other side, looking back from the light at the end of the tunnel. Revisiting the music was cathartic."

While Winberry is able to bring the insight provided by personal experience to Michael's more musically and emotionally sophisticated late career tunes, he says that during the show, audience members of all genders, sexual orientations and ages get swept up by an energy that transcends its subject's biography.

"There's a video of George singing at Rock in Rio. He sings "Ain't Nobody" and gives a shout out to Chaka Khan. It's authentic and soulful and fascinating to watch. Feeling as free as he is on stage, that's the goal."

'The Life and Music of George Michael,' Feb. 3, 7:30pm. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St. www.broadwaysf.com

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