(This article originally appeared in Huffington Post on 8/14/17.)
Throughout the long and flashy history of the entertainment business, there have always been the people behind the scenes: the men and women who sacrifice stardom themselves to propel our celebrities into fame. In the words of the eternal character Addison DeWitt in All About Eve’s legendary opening awards show scene: “Minor awards are for such as the writer and director, since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it.” But even more uncelebrated (and controversial…) among these unsung heroes is the infamous “stage mother”. Through the decades, there has always been that occasional determined mom who makes her mark in pop culture history. Judy Garland’s mama Ethel Gumm was one. In more recent times, there was Dina Lohan, mother of America’s favorite bad girl Lindsay Lohan. And for the kiddies of today, the most flamboyant example is Kris Jenner, matriarch of a certain brood known as The Kardashians. Of course, the most famous of them all was (”Here she is, boys. Here she is, world…”) Rose Hovick, AKA “Mama Rose”, whose character was often described as “the ultimate stage mother” and who overshadowed the title character in the classic musical Gypsy. The phenomenon of the stage mother often raises the question: Who are these ambitious parents doing it for? Is it really for their children, or is it really for themselves? That’s one theme, among many others, that’s explored in playwright/director Jack Dyville’s charming play My Stage Daddy.
Originally named Daddy Was the Biggest Stage Mother in Texas, Dyville’s comedy offers a different twist on the phenomenon of the pushy showbiz parent: In this case, it’s the father who wants to propel his outgoing son into the flashy but often cruel world of show business. Set deep in the heart of Texas— and with the accents to prove it— the play is based on Dyville’s real-life story about his upbringing in Fort Worth from ages 10 to his freshman year of college, to his eventual discovery of success as a performer in New York City. This was the 1950’s and early 1960’s, when attitudes about gender roles and sexuality were just starting to change— but not that fast! As one character tellingly states at the beginning of the play, “It’s fashionable nowadays havin’ women in the workplace!”
James Brady Russell (Caleb Miller White), the character based on the play’s author, hears his calling. From childhood, he just wants to declare “Let Me Entertain You”. His white gloves-wearing lady of a mother Jean (Mary Sprague) is supportive, but James’ overbearing and imperious dad Brady (Gustavo Ferrari) is not too happy when his son’s teacher Ms. Couratde (Vicki Oceguera) suggests that James enroll in tap dancing lessons. Brady, however, starts to warm up to the idea of his son becoming a dancer— like the famous Gene Kelly. (Who could be more masculine?) He even defends his son from the Southern Baptist elders who call James a “sissy” for wanting to be a dancer. Once acceptance happens, it happens quickly— and then, faster than a Texas roadrunner, Brady morphs into the titular Stage Daddy in a big way. He starts going with James on auditions and sits in with him on classes, much to the aggravation of both James and everyone else. While James wants to eventually be a Broadway hoofer, his pushy father envisions him as something of a showbiz Jack of All Trades, encouraging him to take on singing, acting, and even the saxophone. Unfortunately, this Papa Rose doesn’t entirely understand just why his son wants to be a performer. The play explores the timeless theme of achieving success versus achieving creative and personal happiness, which are not always compatible. The father and son’s inability to see eye to eye threatens to ruin their dedicated yet tempestuous love for each other, while throwing their long-sacrificing mother Jean into the middle . Will everything come up roses, or will the curtain close on their father-son bond before James’ opening night?
Filled with snappy and smart one-liners (“I don’t think an actor can ever be elected President!”), My Stage Daddy is largely played for laughs, and the cast and script lets the audience in on all the jokes. The actors are universally excellent. Watching the twenty-something Mr. White play a child in the beginning of the play requires some suspension of disbelief… but well-developed arm muscles aside, he later portrays the teenage James remarkably convincingly. As Mama Jean, Mary Sprague plays her less flashy role with enormous sympathy and grace, conveying her character’s quiet strength. And then there’s Gustavo Ferrari as the titular Stage Daddy, arguably the most complex character (and challenging role) in the piece. How much you like or dislike (or empathize with….) Ferrari’s Brady may depend on whether you see him as something of a domineering monster (a view shared by James’ fabulously no-nonsense Aunt Faye, played by Lynn Manuell with Texan-style toughness), or view him in a more forgiving light… not unlike the way audiences have viewed Gypsy’s legendary Mama Rose herself through the years. Playing multiple roles, supporting players Vicki Oceguera and Scott Silvestro arguably have the most fun of all the cast members, using impressive comedy skills for some over-the-top, deliciously decadent characters. Silvestro plays a heavily-accented Russian acting coach with zeal, and reappears later as a TV host and once again in a delightful scene as James “inner voice”. Oceguera is a comedic revelation, having the most fun playing James’ overly perky, somewhat scatterbrained gal pal Raydene who aggressively tries to steal steal James’ virginity on the ballroom dance floor. (Calm your hormones, folks… It’s not exactly what you think…!)
As said before, much of My Stage Daddy is played for broad comedy. Alongside the laughs and wildly colorful characters, however, the play is earnest to the nth degree, with some truly provocative scenes. Those scenes including a sweet-as-cake batter heart-to-heart talk between James and his mother, as well as the provocative final scene. My Stage Daddy is also a unique coming out story, with some candidly personal insight about growing up as a gay man in pre-LGBTQ-liberation small-town America. Caleb Miller White’s James does indeed start to explore his budding sexuality towards his entrance into young adulthood. But in this case, “coming out” takes on a much greater meaning: finding your true self, even when the world around you may not be ready for it. Now, that’s what I call a debut!
My Stage Daddy plays in association with NY Summerfest and FACT Theatre Co. The last performance is Saturday, August 5 at 6pm at Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 West 26th Street. Tickets and more information is available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2944745.