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Theater Review:

"BEING BEAUTIFUL" at Chicago Theatre Company

BY LUCIA MAURO

Chicago Theatre Company’s world-premiere musical, "Being Beautiful," has the potential to be a real stunner. It addresses the often silent topic of African-American drag queens seeking acceptance in the 1930s and 1940s when racial and sexual intolerance were rampant.

But this musical exploration of the unique beauty within us all – by McKinley Johnson (book, music and lyrics) and Stephanie Newsom (music and lyrics) – feels like it’s still in the developmental stages. It also could be more judiciously edited, especially the over-long first act that hammers home its central premise while leaving other aspects of the story vague.

"Being Beautiful" opens during a New Year’s Eve celebration in the 1970s at the South Side Chicago home of Afton Cousins, his tightly wound sister Bernice and Bernice’s charismatic college-age daughter Jena. When Jena shows her uncle a box filled with photos of him as a drag entertainer close to 40 years earlier, he begins to reminisce about the glory and pain of being one of "Miss Lonette’s" nightclub entertainers, who went by the name of Aftrina. Jena also plans to write a thesis on alternative lifestyles – a motive that makes Afton uncomfortable but is never fully explored.

The musical is structured as a series of entwining flashbacks in which Afton’s sultry younger self intersects his current and more sedate life as a florist. We also get a glimpse into Aftrina’s love affair with the dashing Winston Page. But their relationship hovers in limbo since it’s never quite clear who Winston is or why he can’t live with or without Aftrina. Plus it’s baffling why Winston disappears from the show for a considerable chunk of time.

Johnson’s and Newsom’s score, on the other hand, is a moving and powerful blend of blues and torch songs. An early duet between the young Afton and the older Berenice stretches the vocalists’ range of anguished and heart-wrenching emotion.

The story, while important and enlightening, also tends to fall victim to certain gay stereotypes. Miss Lonette, the strongest and sauciest of the drag queens, serves as mother hen to her catty "girls" – the sharp-tongued Ellen, the heavily Russian-accented Leslie (who is Jewish) and, of course, the dreamily seductive Aftrina. Their sass, struts and self-absorption almost grow intolerable. It isn’t until the more urgent second act that these superficial mannerisms (and, no doubt, defense mechanisms) step aside for more in-depth inner examination of the characters’ conflicts.

Director Delia Jolly Gray achieves moments of graceful tragicomedy (especially the Finney’s Ball scene), but she has awkwardly blocked the production. Some performances are more tentative than others; and not all the actors feel comfortable as an ensemble.

Raufel Muhammad endows the young Afton with a beguiling inner light. He can be lonely, sexy, embittered and cruel without resorting to cliches. He is wisely paired with a polished Anthony Pierre Christopher as Winston Page. Too bad Winston’s character is so underwritten; Christopher adds a measured tone of professionalism to the show but is offstage most of the time. Norrisa Pearson delivers textured portrayals of Jena and the young Berenice; and while over the top, Gordon McClure’s Miss Lonette infuses the show with a grounded dynamism.

Less effective are Robert W. Barnett as a one-dimension older Afton; Phyllis Overstreet as a fussy older Berenice; Langstan Martin Smith as the constantly peeved Ellen; and Bailey Boudreau as the ill-defined and melodramatic Leslie.

Christine E. Pascual’s costumes are dazzling vintage works of art. And, despite the work-in-progress feel, "Being Beautiful" bravely tackles issues of sexual identity and acceptance. Ultimately, Miss Lonette encompasses the musical’s strongest message when she tells Aftrina, "Being Beautiful is in your heart, not in your powder and paint."•

"Being Beautiful" runs through June 24 at Chicago Theatre Company, 500 E. 67th St. Tickets: $20. Call 773-493-5360.

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