Longtime Off-Broadway hit launches full-frontal assault at the Parliament House

By : Billy Manes
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And, they’re off! Within approximately five minutes of musical pleasantries and coy sideways glances, the entire cast of longtime Off-Broadway bachelor/bachelorette-party revue Naked Boys Singing sheds its clothing and reveals its combined parcels of manhood. At the show’s Feb. 4 VIP/press engagement in advance of its Feb. 5 opening, the sound may have been a little bit quiet in the Footlight Theatre at Parliament House, but the message was writ large: Nudity isn’t just titillation; it’s bold and honest, especially on a stage in front of a packed house.

“I think it celebrates the male anatomy, but we do it in a humorous way,” William Bruce, he of the Prince Albert affectation and the cojones to match, tells us over an arranged lunch in advance of the performance. “It’s also really poignant.”

The bait, naturally, is the exhibitionism, as it has always been for the show. The switch comes in the story arc – or rather, pastiche – that plays on everything nude but pornography, taking a right at romance and a left at insecurity. It’s a tricky gamut, really, but in the presentation of the show, it works well after the first few awkward giggles from an audience faced with 16 songs from seven gentlemen who are all hanging at the half-mast level of nerves and performance.

“I think the show does a really good job of recognizing, ‘OK, we know why you’re here. You saw the word ‘naked,’ and you were curious about that.’ And we get that out of the way right up top, so you can focus on the content of the show later on. Which I think explores a lot of different topics about what nakedness means, outside of the obvious,” Bruce says. “Actors always try to portray dimension. And I think being naked, you’re really at your most vulnerable. And then there are also problems that would arise by being naked, like getting a boner in the locker room, which is funny, but it’s a problem that everyone has had to deal with. It’s pretty relatable.”

With subject matter ranging from circumcision (“The Bliss of a Bris”) to unrequited love to Robert Mitchum (!) to, again, locker-room insecurities and then some, Naked Boys Singing swiftly diverts focus from below the non-existent belt to the feelings that men hold about their “manhood.” There are no guardrails or guideposts. Well, there are posts.

“I know for us, as performers, when you take off your clothes, it’s like a costume – you don’t think about it,” 20-year-old Mitchel Burns says.

“It presents some challenges for the actor,” Bruce adds. “You don’t have huge sets and costumes and a bunch of stuff to overshadow your performance. It’s just you. To be able to communicate the message or the emotion that’s going on at the time. You just have yourself and that’s it. It just comes across a little more honest.”

The show isn’t so bold a move when you consider that the Footlight’s new artistic director Tim Evanicki is the man behind Bathhouse: The Musical, which toyed, obviously, with similar themes of stripping down to send it up.

“There’s nothing to hide behind, and the talent in the show is incredible and the singing will really just blow you away. There’s really difficult music and really difficult harmonies and really tough dance numbers in the show. And they’re really dancing up there in the nude,” Evanicki says. But, cough, doesn’t that hurt a bit? “They did their dance callback nude. They had to audition nude. So we saw the floppage in the callback,” he laughs.

“A lot of us came from different backgrounds, some in professional theater and elsewhere, so a lot of us met for the first time at our photo shoot, where we took a bunch of pictures naked with each other,” Bruce says. “That’s literally how we introduced ourselves: ‘All right guys, take off your clothes.’”

The camaraderie between the cast members is evident in speaking with them, and even more so when watching them perform together. You have to have a sense of humor – and, likely, a supportive personality – to stand there, balls out on stage with nothing but a smile and a voice (and a Prince Albert, in that one case).

“We’ve all become really quick at finding the joke,” Bruce says. “It’s a lot of fun during rehearsals, because the subject matter is obviously there. If someone cracks a dick joke, it just feels like another day at the office.”

But even though the show contractually assures “95 percent all nude” performances, according to Evanicki, it is a thoughtful musical theater exercise at its core, only without the props, elaborate stage set and the clothing. It’s possibly more than you think it is. In fact, it’s bigger than you might think.

“I think they’re going to come into the show expecting to have a great time, and they’re going to have a great time,” Bruce says. “I think they’re also going to come into the show not expecting the moments that surprise them. It’s serious, it’s honest, it’s touching, and those moments, I think, are what make the show really great. You come expecting a ‘funny-ha-ha’ type of show, which it is. But there are those times in the show that bring it back down to the vulnerable aspects. Really, I think, it’s going to touch people in a way they’re not expecting.”

Perhaps expectedly, not everyone among the cast’s friends and family necessarily agree on the touching part. (Evanicki jokes that the first three rows of the Footlight are backed up to avoid the “splash zone”). Or they don’t want to. Or they just don’t want to see their friend or family person’s member.

“Most of the time, you can rely on your core group of friends to support anything you do no matter how good or bad it is,” performer James Berkley says. “With this, it’s reversed. They say, ‘I love you, but I can’t come see the show.’”

More information
What: Naked Boys Singing
When: Weekends, 7:30 p.m., through March 13
Where: Footlight Theatre at Parliament House
Tickets: $17-$32, phouse.ticketleap.com

Gallery photos by Jake Stevens, from a rehearsal at Parliament House. 

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