If it seems at times that native Angelinos are about as rare as a 99-seat production that starts at 8:00 on the dot, it’s perhaps even harder to find big-city LGBTs who haven’t left their small town homes for greener big city pastures, or so it may seem. No wonder, then, that Blue State gays and lesbians tend to forget just how many of us there still are in the American heartland.

 This is just one of many reasons why Harmony, Kansas comes as such a marvelous surprise—an original musical (now getting its World Premiere at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre) that focuses its lens on seven gay men who’ve stayed behind, and even more eye-openingly, who’ve stayed behind by choice.

In fact, our 20something hero Heath (Jacob Caltrider) could hardly imagine living anywhere but on the Kansas farm where he has chosen to share his life with Julian (Tom Zohar), his big city boyfriend who’s left Kansas City to make a home with farmer Heath in the hinterland.

Naturally, with two such different Kansans under the same roof, there are bound to be conflicts, and it is in fact with a pair of diametrically opposed bits of “Big News” that book writer Bill Nelson gets thing rolling.

It turns out that on the very same day that Heath has decided to buy an additional five hundred acres of land (if only he can convince his life partner to sign on), Julian has come home with his own announcement: “Guess what they’ve got in Shiloh! A group of gay guys who sing! And we’re going to join!”

Not surprisingly, each man greets the other’s news with a big fat “No way!” Julian can’t fathom Heath’s need for a farm that’s “bigger than Vermont,” and as for Heath, the last thing the farmer wants is to “sit around and be gay in front of other gay people.”

After some persuasion, however, Julian does get Heath to commit to at least giving the singing group a try, a decision which allows both him and us to “meet the gays.”

 An eclectic group whose ages run from 16 to 60ish, DJ (Dylan Hoffinger), Darrell (Tony Houck), Wiley (John Whitley), Fuzz (Bill Nolte), and out-of-town visitor Kent (Anthony Methvin) love nothing more than to raise their voices in song, and since the last newbie who showed up in their midst never came back for seconds, the men have determined not to let history repeat itself. This time they will make both Heath and Julian feel as at home as possible, beginning with “The Welcome Song.”

In an attempt to calm any fears Heath might have about being found out by the folks he deals with on a daily basis, the songsters reveal their secret. Friends and family believe them to be in a poker club because “it raises less eyebrows.” To make the welcome even warmer, Darrell does his best to convince the newcomers that they have plenty of things in common, including, it turns out, “salads topped with bacon bits.”

Despite Heath’s reservations, he and Julian do return a second time, and a third, though when Julian tries to persuade his fellow singers to perform in public, it’s not just Heath who refuses to take part in “rubbing our lifestyles in their faces.” There’s no way in heck any of the others are about to follow Julian’s urgings to “Live Out Loud.”

 In Harmony, Kansas, book writer/lyricist Nelson and composer Anna K. Jacobs have created seven gay Kansans about as different as seven gay men can be, from fatherly Fuzz to anal-compulsive Wiley to exuberant DJ to flamboyant Darrell, whose hissy fit (when Heath and Julian show up with homemade cupcakes that seem to outshine his own peanut butter rolls) gives Diversionary treasure Houck the tour-de-force showstopper “I Bring The Snacks.”

Darrell’s illicit love affair with Kent forms Harmony, Kansas’s B plot, a one-night hookup that begins to turn serious, threatening not only the rules Darrell and his longtime partner Pete have set up to accommodate truck driver Pete’s long absences on the road but their very relationship as well.

Harmony, Kansas succeeds on so many levels that it’s hard to know which to talk about first, though perhaps its greatest selling point is the uniqueness of its setting. After all, when was the last time you saw a movie, play, or musical about a group of small-town, Red State gays? Julian, Heath, and their fellow “poker players” are living in Kansas by choice, finding fulfillment in tilling the soil or in other rural walks of life, and none of them (except perhaps for 16-year-old DJ) is likely at any time soon (or indeed ever) to pack up and move to the Castro or WeHo or Chelsea.

Serious issues underlie Nelson’s book as well, including the paralyzing internalized homophobia that can make even the apparently inconsequential act of singing in public an unimaginable feat.

 As for Nelson and Jacobs’ songs, each and every one of them commands a second listen, Jacobs’ catchy melodies and Nelson’s clever lyrics announcing the arrival of an important new musical theater-writing team. The a cappella “Kansas Land,” the delightful “The Welcome Song,” the poignant “Here In The Hay,” the rollicking (and ingeniously staged) “Ride The Bull,” and the inspirational “I Will Sing” (among many others) make this reviewer long for an as yet unrecorded Original Cast CD.

Only the Darrell-Kent subplot needs work. Is their affair merely a “summer romance” than can and should end when Pete comes back to town, or is the two men’s burgeoning relationship a healthier one than Darrell’s is with Pete? (We learn at a certain point that Darrell’s and Pete’s open relationship is very much Pete’s idea, and one that Darrell only goes along with to make Pete happy.) An Act Two plot twist that makes all this a moot point does offer dramatic payoff, but goes against everything the writers seemed to be aiming for in Act One.

Needing absolutely no work at all are James Vasquez’s impeccable direction, seven sensational performances, superb musical direction, and an exquisite design package.

Caltrider has never been better than he is as Heath, a role that would seem to have been written with the San Diego-based leading man in mind. Not only does Caltrider look the part, he conveys all of Heath’s heartbreaking conflicts and contradictions, and sings gloriously to boot.

Trumpets should sound announcing Zohar’s return to San Diego following two years in the Big Apple, the multiple award winner giving Julian an infectious exuberance and some of the best tenor pipes in town. That frequent costars Caltrider and Zohar have terrific chemistry together is icing on the cake.

Houck is never less than astonishing in anything he does, and his Darrell is no exception, a joyous soul whom Houck plays so richly as to defy any gay clichéing.

The prodigiously talented, 16-year-old Hoffinger returns to Diversionary Theatre two years after his memorable debut as Horace Poole in Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins, this time in song-and-dance mode, and what a performance he gives, a bundle of impish teenage spunk whom the writers have gifted with the evening’s show-stoppingest solo, “Homo Kid From Kansas Blues.”

New York visitor Nolte is a force of nature as the patriarch of the group, and never more so than when he solos the gorgeous “A Beautiful Thing.” Diversionary staple Whitley once again shines as the fussiest of the songbirds, a role he invests with abundant wit and charm. Finally, San Diego newcomer Methvin gives heart and depth to summer fling Darrell, especially when duetting a passionately sung “Here In The Hay” opposite Houck.

Vocally, there’s not a weak link in the cast, and when all seven voices are raised in harmony, the effect is breathtaking.

Kudos to music director/orchestrator extraordinaire Adam Wachter, who also provides piano accompaniment alongside Peggy Johnston on bass. (Watcher’s duties will be taken over by associate music director Thomas Hodges when the New York-based Watcher heads on home following opening weekend.)

Scenic designer Sean Fanning has created a gorgeous rural Kansas set, backed by the requisite windmill and Big Sky, exquisitely lit by Michelle Caron. Shirley Pierson’s costumes are so authentic, you’d swear she flew to Kansas to pick them out. David J. Medina’s properties design deserves a round of applause, especially his meticulously face-painted stones. Kevin Anthenill’s and Vasquez’s sound design is first-rate as well.

Traci Van Wyk is production stage manager and Maria Orozco stage manager. Bret Young is producing director. Diversionary Theatre’s Executive Director is John E. Alexander.

It’s risky business for a theater company to brave the debut of a brand new musical. In the case of Harmony, Kansas, however, the risk has definitely paid off. San Diegans who head on over to Diversionary over the next month are in for a real treat. As for Angelinos, anyone who considers him or herself a true musical theater lover could do no better than to make a day-trip to Harmony, Kansas. It’s a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to a square state, and well worth the ride.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
June 23, 2012
Photos: Michelle Caron, Ken Jacques

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