Transformation: The Christine Jorgensen Show is a new musical with book, music, and lyrics by Donald Steven Olson. The two-character play focuses on the relationship between transgender icon Jorgensen (played by Nicola Gorham) and seasoned song-and-dance man Myles Bell (played by Mark Nadler), whom Jorgensen recruits to help her pursue a career in the entertainment business. Directed by Michael Blatt, Transformation recently made its debut at New York City’s wild project as part of The 2023 Fresh Fruit Festival, and it was indeed an audience pleaser. The events of the play may have taken place in the 1950’s, but the story of Christine Jorgensen, and the larger push for transgender understanding and acceptance, is more relevant than ever as we enter the second half of 2023. Transformation is both entertaining and enlightening, with exquisite performances by Gorham and Nadler. But underneath the smart script, catchy tunes, and fine acting is a timeless message about believing in yourself and never giving up.
Despite what many pieces of news and the tagline for the awful 1970 film The Christine Jorgensen Story had declared, Christine Jorgensen was not the first “man to become a woman”– or, more accurately, was not the first person to undergo gender affirmation surgery (known more commonly as “sex change operation” back then). But she was undisputedly the most well-known transgender person in the public eye, largely because of the new phenomenon known as “TV”. At that time, Jorgensen, in fact, was often called “the most famous person in the world”, which the play reminds its audience. Jorgensen’s unique story actually made her both famous and infamous in equal doses. It was, however, her intelligence, charm, and grace that kept her in the spotlight and made her an LGBTQ icon to this present day. As we learn in the play, becoming a star was not just about vanity. After her story became worldwide news, how could Christien Jorgensen go back to being a “normal” person with a “normal” 9 to 5 job? She pretty much had no choice but to make a living from her newfound visibility as a public figure. Who could help Jorgensen achieve her goals? Could it be… Myles Bell?
But first: Who was Myles Bell? By 1953, Bell was a talented albeit world-weary performer. Bum knee notwithstanding, the self-proclaimed “entertainer extraordinaire” was able to tap dance at the drop of a top hat and to write song lyrics instinctively at his piano. Yet by the time we see him in Donald Steven Olsen’s play, Bell is living in a tiny rehearsal studio and is also cynical enough to declare, “There’s no ‘business’ in ‘show business’!” When Christine and Myles first meet, the budding ingenue declares, “I don’t sing, dance, or strip!” Bell asks, “Can you act?” Jorgensen answers, “I’ve acted all my life!”… In that one line, Nicola Gorham-as-Christine Jorgensen speaks volumes about the transgender experience.
In real life, Jorgensen would indeed become an in-demand performer, author, and speaker, even recording some songs which are still available for listening today thanks to the wonders of digital media. As Transformation points out, she hobnobbed with famous people ranging from Irving Berlin to Cole Porter to Dr. Alfred Kinsey. But this unexpected celebrity did not enter the public eye with the intent to become an entertainer; she would most likely have preferred to be BEHIND the camera rather than in front of it. That said, Jorgensen had a clear idea of the image she wanted to project. In one scene of the play, she rejects a song written by Myles named Itchin’ For a Man, believing it was too risqué. It would, as the audience gets to watch, be a S-L-O-W process of making the 27-year-old Christine a competent singer and dancer: literally, note by note and step by step. Still, she persisted: Chrstine even tells Myles: “If I were a quitter, I wouldn’t be here today!” Equally S-L-O-W is the trajectory of the pair’s relationship, which takes on the form of an elaborate mating dance of sorts: from apprehension, to trust, to friendship, and finally mutual affinity. And, of course, they eventually succeed in their collaboration. The climax of Transformation is Christine Jorgensen’s very first nightclub act: at The Copa! (The Copa in Pittsburg, that is…!)
For those who are unfamiliar with her story, it may seem hard to believe that Christine Jorgensen’s widely reported gender affirmation surgery was over 70 years ago. Still, while it’s undoubtedly true that there has been no less of an explosion of transgender visibility since the 1950’s, there are still many issues in the play that are still strikingly familiar, even in our so-called “progressive” era. For example, Christine immediately shuts down the discussion when Myles parrots that Christine was a man who “became” a woman, which was the commonly used lexicon in the press at the time and is still even said today. Jorgensen reminded him that she was ALWAYS a woman but was born in the wrong body. She must also remind Bell to look beyond the image he knows from her larger-than-life persona (a persona that was seemingly endlessly exploited by the press) to see the person within: “I’m a human being, with human feelings!”
As mentioned before, the acting in Transformation is fantastic. As Jorgensen, Nicola Gorham captures Christine’s famously mannered elegance: The actor is, indeed, “every inch a lady”, right down to the way she crosses her legs when sitting or instinctively curves her ankle when standing for a graceful pose. As history’s lesser-known real life person known as Myles Bell, Mark Nadler is clearly an all-around talented entertainer, much like the character he is playing claims to be: Watch his tap dance solos if you need proof. (Nadler is also Musical Director and Tap Choreographer for the show.) The chemistry between Gorham and Nadler is both funny and heartwarming to watch. A special shoutout also goes to Elizabeth Eketaei for her costumes. The wardrobe, hairstyles, and eye-popping gowns (complete with such fine detail as the nylons with back seams) are all spot-on. The original music is clearly designed to sound “of its time”, and it’s catchy and earnest to the nth degree. Most of the music in the beginning is sung by Nader, but fear not: Christine steals the scene with Every Inch a Lady, a true showstopper. The play cumulates in the moment that we’ve always been waiting for: The pair perform the duet Pretty Baby, and both Christine and Myles tell the 1953 audience, “Give yourself a great big hand!“. Trust me, the 2023 audience didn’t need encouragement to applaud!
Let’s hope Transformation: The Christine Jorgensen Show comes back to the stage very soon!