Having loved (and cried during) The Nance on Broadway, I felt somewhat prepared to love (and cry over) The Pansy Craze: A New Musical, showing at the Randolph Theatre as part of the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival. The shows both throw the Gay Wayback Machine back to a liminal time in queerness, exploring a shimmering moment in history when gender-independence was briefly allowable in public before law-enforcement clamped its unforgiving jaws back down. I did love The Pansy Craze: A New Musical, and I did cry, and I am keen indeed to see how this show progresses.
The Pansy Craze: A New Musical by bright talent Avery Jean Brennan, welcomes us to the early 1930s, a time when the appetite for drag performances and “nance” roles (foppish, effeminate men) crested in vaudeville and burlesque shows, especially in underground clubs serving illegal liquor, where much was permitted (especially, it seems, that which was forbidden elsewhere). Duncan (played by Eric McDace in the first four performances, including this one, and will subsequently be played by Teddy Moynihan), whose gender-normativity and relative reserve is the exception on this stage, has a little cabaret in an unspecified smaller metro area and has been contacted by a big-city impresario to bring a new, fresh act. Because of shenanigans and egos, his plan to send a straight married pair of freshly eloped hoofers goes awry, and he’s forced to send Jeanie (a magnificent Devin Herbert) along with the ostensibly heterosexual Charlie (Shaquille Pottinger, who brings an air of soft-spoken reserve) to New York. Helen (Stephanie Hood), Charlie’s actual wife, goes along as choreographer while she heals an injury (or so she’s told).
There, they meet the delightful widow of the impresario, the blowsy but deeply sincere Gladys (a generous and exuberant Kira Renee), whose enthusiasm for pansies could not be any brighter and who propositions Helen so hilariously at one point that I may have laughed in a way not entirely unlike a bray. In the club as well is Tom, a bully of a cop, played with an awful two-faced sliminess by Sansom Marchand. He spends his off-duty time at Tops and Tails, but we learn early not to trust him. Rounding out the largish cast for a Fringe show is Peter Mundell as the impresario Norbert, whose money and privilege clearly insulate him from any censure as an actual gay in show business.
The work is emotionally resonant and well-constructed, with a smooth arc and interesting songs that advance the plot well. The cast gelled nicely, with a loose-limbed energy that fits the time of the work, a sort of a carefree juke-joint vibe. The relationships drive this show, especially the story of Jeanie and Charlie. The pair of them together are very sweet but it’s Herbert as Jeanie who makes the show shimmer and gives it a depth of feeling that surprised me and earned every scrap of my respect.
For a Fringe show, The Pansy Craze: A New Musical is robust, well-conceived and fairly polished with a large-ish cast and most of the roughness rehearsed out of it. By Fringe standards it’s in the sweet spot of work that’s so fresh we’re among the first to see it but feels mostly cooked. However, what I really want is to see it continue beyond the Fringe, to put on about another 40 minutes of plot and character development, and to grow a band besides. That said, see this at Fringe if you like musicals at all.
- The Pansy Craze: A New Musical plays at the Randolph Theatre. (736 Bathurst St.)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (707 Dundas St. W.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warnings: Mature language; Sexual content; Gunshots.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible through a secondary route. We recommend checking in with the venue box office at least 15 minutes before showtime.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Friday July 6th, 5:15 pm
- Sunday July 8th, 7:00 pm
- Tuesday July 10th, 10:30 pm
- Wednesday July 11th, 1:45 pm
- Friday July 13th, 3:30 pm
- Saturday July 14th, 9:15 pm
- Sunday July 15th, 5:15 pm
photo provided by the company.