nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
March 4, 2005
It was a moment theatre lovers will speak of forever: the 1982 Tony Awards. The cast of the pop opera Dreamgirls performs the final moments of the first act, in which dethroned diva, Effie White, confronts Michelle “Who’s She?” Morris, the woman replacing Effie on stage, and Deena “Nothing But Common” Jones, the woman replacing Effie in her man Curtis's bed and heart. Strikingly talented black artists in fabulous costumes are tearing apart a Broadway stage in a powerful, contemporary new way. Well, nowhere did that moment resonate more strongly than it did in the Pittsburgh home of thirteen-year-old Billy Porter, Ghetto Superstar in training. Relegated to character roles, like Fagan in Oliver!, the self-proclaimed most talented performer in his junior high—and who am I to argue—realized at that moment that there was, indeed, a place on the Great White Way for a black Broadway bitch from the ghetto. And by the time he gets halfway through "Black Broadway Bitch," the opening number of his six-week run at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, I guarantee you will be sold as well. Porter packs Ghetto Superstar, The Man That I Am with fierce vocal styling, sharp wit, and smooth dance moves that don’t stop.
Porter is known to Broadway audiences for his work in Miss Saigon, Five Guys Named Moe, Grease, and Smokey Joe’s Cafe. His film credits include Noel and the gay independent, The Broken Hearts Club. But this autobiographical musical memoir is about more than the peaks and pitfalls of show business. Ghetto Superstar is the Pittsburgh story August Wilson never told—the journey of a gay African American boy raised in a religious family. And although the evening is mostly glittering, musical fun, there are many heart-in-your-mouth moments as well. The rise of this shining star took detours through the harsh realities of childhood sexual abuse, a mother’s rejection, and more than one painful gay bashing. There’s also a religious journey here, as Porter grapples with the condemnation of his sexual orientation, and ultimately reconciles with the church that was the birthplace of his public singing career.
That the show never gets bogged down in the drama is a tribute to Porter’s keen artistry as both a performer and writer. There is enough detail to make it personal and moving, with a broad enough range of experiences to keep it from being boring or alienating. At the performance I saw, the room was, in fact, strikingly diverse in terms of age, race, and orientation, and everyone seemed to find something in the evening that made the show personal for them. I’m sure not everyone’s palms were sweating, as mine were, during the reenactment of the Dreamgirls epiphany. During some of the more religious moments, which I don’t personally relate to, there were plenty of audience members making it clear they had experience with such battles and revelations.
The music is a little theatre, a little R&B, and a lot of soul, with some covers and a lot of originals. The four-piece band, headed by musical director David Cook, is furious enough to keep up with Porter, and subtle enough to help him tell his many stories. Sasha Allen and Brandi Chavonne Massey, the two, strong backup singers in slinky, black dresses, give the show a stylized ambience, and more than a few moments of clever humor.
But more than anything else on that stage, there is sweat to spare. With the kind of striking vocal talent Porter possesses, many performers wouldn’t work half as hard to fill an-hour-and-three-quarters. Ghetto Superstar, The Man That I Am is a blood-and-guts, in-your-teeth performance that earns every clap and every shout and holler. Porter is a force of nature on that stage, and this is the perfect vehicle to let him show just how much damage he can do.
Joe’s Pub is a cabaret, and you can just order drinks if you like. There’s also a reasonably priced full menu, including a $25 prix-fixe full dinner, and many appetizers and a la carte items.