Anthony Wayne in the title role of “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical.” | BILL COYLE
When I first heard about “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical,” the jukebox bio-musical debuting Off Broadway at the Theater at St. Clements, I wondered how the songs could possibly stand up to the original.
Hailed as “The Queen of Disco” in the late 1970s, the gender-bending Sylvester broke through with his singular blend of gospel, high-energy disco, and plaintive soul, electrified by heart-piercing, libido-tingling falsetto wails. Not to mention a flair for wearing lipstick, wigs, lavish furs, and oodles of jewels. John Waters once described an early act as “Billie Holiday and Diana Ross on LSD.”
The flamboyant performer was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005, and while his music is legendary, especially among gay men of a certain age, there’s an entire generation clueless about his impact on dance culture. “Mighty Real” is bent on changing all that.
Spunky jukebox musical about Sylvester makes you wanna funk
Amazingly, Anthony Wayne, who also wrote the book and co-directed, ebulliently evokes Sylvester in all his glory. Never mind that he’s leaner and more angular than the original. His vocals are clear and pure, effortlessly gliding between middle and upper registers. His moves are even crisper and snappier than Sylvester’s. And the costumes by Kendrell Bowman, who also co-directed, are dazzlingly fabulous.
I was convinced I was in the presence of inspired greatness for every second of the 90-minute show.
The supporting cast members are so gifted they threaten to upstage the star. Anastacia McCleskey, who also choreographed, and Jacqueline B. Arnold are mind-blowing as Two Tons o’ Fun (Martha Wash and Izora Armstead, later known as the Weather Girls). Singers Deanne Stewart and Rahmel McDade add a welcome richness to the musical numbers.
The five-piece band, prominently onstage throughout the proceedings, pumps out the beats with fervor and panache. The appropriately spare set design, by David Lander, is little more than a staircase, towers of colored floodlights, and a giant disco ball.
Augmenting original hits like “Do Ya Wanna Funk,” “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” and “Dance (Disco Heat)” and popular covers like “Ooh Baby Baby” and “Cry Me a River” are lively pop tunes from big-name divas Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle. and Tina Turner, major influences on Sylvester’s work.
But “Mighty Real” is not content being simply a boogie-down concert celebration. It traces Sylvester’s rise from gospel singer at his Los Angeles Pentecostal church (appallingly, he was molested by his choir director), to member of the San Francisco hippie drag troupe the Cockettes, to his collaboration with Two Tons O’ Fun, to his hit-and-miss solo career. And of course his addiction to boys and “shoppin’ in the name of Jesus.”
At its core, “Mighty Real” is about self-acceptance, singing your own song even if it goes against the mainstream, and living your life to the fullest with no regrets. For his part, Wayne handles the tender moments, like succumbing to complications from AIDS in 1988, with heartfelt finesse.
COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL SHIREY
Defiantly gay throughout his career, Sylvester proved a fearless inspiration for the emerging LGBT community during a time of extreme racial bigotry and homophobia, when wearing one scrap of drag could land you in jail. He performed at the 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade in the Castro and years later boldly appeared at another pride parade alongside the banner “People living with AIDS.” Truly awe-inspiring.
My only quibble is that I wanted more. Like many jukebox musicals, the book, mostly conveyed by confessional patter between the musical numbers, is sketchy. What about the groundbreaking television appearances? I wanted the story of his 1987 stint on “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” where he blurted that he was “married” to Rick Cranmer and was horrified to realize he had just outed the man on national television. Joan’s reaction was priceless (at the3:50 mark at youtube.com/watch?v=FNS7VM5oTRU or below).
I wanted more edgy context. Sylvester’s music was synonymous with dancing, drugs, poppers, and wild sex, yet there was scant mention of drugs (even in “A Night With Janis Joplin,” the singer took a swig from a whiskey bottle now and then). Perhaps a couple of euphoric go-go boys or projected images of sweaty, shirtless clubgoers would help.
I wasn’t the only one who missed the element of illicit behavior. During one of the final numbers, when the crowd was on its feet, a gyrating theatergoer in front of me, swept up in the frenzy, reached into his pocket, whipped out a key, and pantomimed snorting some bumps.
MIGHTY REAL: A FABULOUS SYLVESTER MUSICAL | Theater at St. Clements, 423 W. 46th St. | Through Oct. 5: Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m., Sun. at 7 p.m. | $25-$84.50 at FabulousSylvester.com | 90 min.
Sylvester and Joan Rivers at 3:50 minutes: