“The Nance” at Arts West

Welcome to Manhattan in the 1930s. Despite the efforts of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, burlesque is big business in New York, and among its most popular forms is the nance. The main attractions of nance are the male performers who amuse the audience with their caricatures of homosexuals. Oh how audiences laughed at those campy gays. Yes clubs offering the nance also have sexy women performing, but it’s the guys playing gays who draw the audiences.

Most of the nance performers were straight, but in this production the nightclub’s nance, Chauncey Miles, is indeed gay, though that’s his deep secret. Richard Gray as Chauncey provides all the verve and brilliant showmanship Chauncey’s audiences expect, but below that jovial exterior is a sad man who can’t be himself except surreptitiously. Off stage he frequents places where quick and furtive liaisons are possible, and he tries to make himself believe that that’s a reasonable life. Gray is brilliant portraying the nance performing on stage and heartbreaking as the real man who society has deemed unacceptable.

Richard Gray as Chauncey Miles in The Nance. Photo by John McLellan.

When Ned, a needy young man enters his life (wonderfully played by Drew Highlands), there’s almost a chance of real happiness for Chauncey. Sadly, he lives in a world where that’s not to be.

Performing at the club with Chauncey is Efram. Jeff Steitzer excels inthe role. Sprightly and silly, he wows us with his verve, his costumes, and patter. And we learn that underneath the grease paint, he’s a compassionate individual.

The three excellent actresses, who dance, sing, strut, sashay, and perform for the club’s audiences (and, of course, us), are excellent in their routines. These buxom females bump and grind in low-cut satin dresses and back-seamed stockings held up by garter belts. Each of them (Ann Cornelius, Jasmine Jean Sims and Diana Cameron McQueen) is also quite moving as a caring friend of Chauncey.

Nance shows were wildly popular in an age when homosexuality was reviled. Arts West has masterfully recreated the ambiance of that era with its voyeurism. The theatre itself has been transformed into a nightclub. Strings of white lights hang from the rafters and form patterns on the walls. Cabaret tables (at which audience members can pay to sit) surround the two stages within the main stage where the performers dance and sing. The carpeting has a ’30s quality, and as the performers come and go, one is indeed thrust into a previous era.

Director Mathew Wright has done it again! He’s establishing a record of hit after hit at Arts West. This one is an especially powerful show that captures all our emotions. Funny? Oh indeed, it’s full of laughs and gaiety, but you may also find yourself wiping away a tear or two.

Through Nov. 19 at Arts West, 4711 California Ave., SW, Seattle, http://www.artswest.org/theatre/buy-tickets.

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