Growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania in the 1980s, John Paul Karliak always knew he was adopted. What he didn’t figure out until a good deal later was that there wouldn’t be a Mrs. Karliak in his future, if you get my drift. Still, despite young J.P.’s cluelessness to his budding sexual orientation, it must have been hard for his family to mistake the signs: An occasional dress. A running gait like Tinkerbell’s. The ability to quote Auntie Mame as if it were the Bible.


All things considered, John Paul’s life was a good one, a happy one, his adoptive parents the kind of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth folk any American boy would be proud to call Mom and Dad.

Then one day in his early twenties, seated behind the desk at a boring nine-to-five and not at all close to his childhood dream of a life on stage or in front of a camera, J.P. came to a sudden realization: “I need somebody who gets me, the me that I know, and there’s only one other person who could possibly know him: the person that made me.”

John Paul’s quest eventually led, not merely to the woman who gave him life, but to Donna/Madonna, a solo performance whose workshop last summer had this reviewer in stitches, in tears, and waiting for a chance to tell the world about this magical, memorable peek into the life of one marvelously talented young man.

Well, that chance has now come. Following its Best One Man Show Award victory at the 2010 United Solo Theatre Festival in New York, Donna/Madonna now gets its official Los Angeles premiere at the Lounge Theatre. Solo performances may be a dime a dozen these days, but this one is worth a million bucks.

It’s clear from the get-go that, just as young J.P. was no ordinary six-year-old, this is going to be no ordinary one-man show. After all, how many 1st graders stage a living-room extravaganza in Carol Channing drag and trademark raspy voice, asking assembled family members, “Do you like my gown? I just bought it today. Along with my hair, but seriously. I’m sure you must have questions for me, famous as I am, so go on, ask away!”

The Michelle Bachmanns of the world might well cringe at such incipient fabulousness, but if you don’t fall in love with this precocious primary schooler, then that’s your problem and not J.P’s.

As a child growing up with the perfect 1950s-style Italian-American adoptive mother, John Paul couldn’t help fantasizing that his birth mother might be her mirror opposite. Perhaps a peasant girl from Italy. (“The mayor of Sant’Elia a Pianisi… he make a me pregnant. I was a forced to flee my village in an olive cart and come to this country.”) Perhaps the one and only Elizabeth Taylor herself. (“That year, I was used to waking up drunk. Until the morning I woke up pregnant. God knows by who, coulda been a bellhop.”)

If the Donna in Donna/Madonna refers to John Paul’s Donna Reed-like adoptive mother, then the second half of the title will clue you in to the birth mom he ended up meeting for the first time at Starbucks over chai tea lattes. Think pop star, or at least the wife of one.


At the risk of giving too much away, I’ll stop here and simply say that John Paul Karliak’s Donna/Madonna is as thoroughly entertaining a solo show as you’re likely to see this year or any, and that Karliak is the very definition of Star On The Rise. (Memo to any and all network sitcom creators: Write John Paul a lead role in your next big hit.)

Under the snappy co-direction of Tiger Reel and Matt Craig, with musical direction by Billy Thompson and DJ ChocliXxX, a terrific sound design by Reel, and an excellent uncredited lighting design, Donna/Madonna gives the handsome, charismatic Karliak a chance to strut his acting stuff, playing himself, both his moms, and other folks as well. He also shows off one heck of a singing voice in musical takeoffs from Annie (“Betcha she’d cheer and throw me a rose/And wouldn’t mind when I wore sequined clothes”) and Cabaret (“Mama/Doesn’t even have an inkling/ I’m auditioning for boyfriends/And there’s a casting call tonight”).

Though Donna/Madonna will doubtless resonate most strongly with audience members who are either gay, adopted, or adoptive, you don’t have to be even one of the above to fall under its spell. D/M offers straight and/or non-adopted/adoptive audience members an eye-opening glimpse into growing up gay or adopted. And when a broken-hearted John Paul reaches out to his real mother for tight hugs and buttered noodles, never has the true meaning of real felt realer or more right.

If you’re anything like this reviewer, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud and wiping away tears virtually non-stop from Donna/Madonna’s fabulous start to its fantabulous finish.

Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
July 6, 2011

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