Secretly gay 1930s film star Lance Grant falls head-over-heels for the equally famous—and equally closeted—Hoyt Baxter in Adrian Bewley, Joe Blodgett, and Chana Wise’s delightful new musical The Max Factor Factor, a fortuitous first collaboration between New Musicals Inc. and Celebration Theatre.
The year is 1936 and the Legion Of Rectitude (a combination of the real-life Catholic Legion Of Decency and the equally draconian Hays Office) is bound and determined to out any Hollywood heartthrob whose heart (and/or other body parts) dares to throb for a member of the unopposite sex.
Rival matinee idols Hoyt (Jeffrey Christopher Todd) and Lance (Jeff Scott Carey) fit that profile to an (LGB)T, though in decidedly distinct ways. While Lance is round about Tinseltown sowing his gay oats (albeit so discreetly that only those in the know know what’s going on behind closed doors), Hoyt has opted to repress those same same-sex urges, that is until he meets Lance quite by accident one afternoon at the makeup salon of cosmetics king Max Factor.
Fortunately for dueling studio moguls Fred Berkson (Kevin Michael Moran) and Hank Whittles (Kevin McIntyre), each of their competing Top Box Office Draws comes attached with his own glamorous movie star beard.
Hoyt’s is ditzy lush Clara Burns (Jessica Snow Wilson), whose perpetual alcoholic haze—along with Hoyt’s self-imposed celibacy—has kept her conveniently clueless to her beau’s homo-proclivities. Lance’s Alice Fern (Jessica Howell), on the other hand, knows full well that she and her slutty sweetie are heading towards a marriage of convenience.
Danger then arrives in the person of Legion Of Rectitude head honcha Cordelia Goodwife (Heather Olt), who having sniffed out something fishy between Hoyt and Lance, vows to destroy them both, thereby making the land safe for America’s morally rect (as opposed to Hollywood’s immorally erect). As for Cordelia’s own possible proclivity for things fishy, well all you have to do is look at her mannish suits and sensible shoes to get a whiff of possible female-on-female desires.
Eva Gallagher (Jordan Kai Burnett) and Johnny Strong (Stefan Rich) complete The Max Factor Factor’s tantalizing mix of featured characters as a pair of dumb-but-sexy Hollywood starlets. (How dumb are they? Studio head Fred’s niece Eva takes her influential uncle seriously when he suggests “Nepotism” as the one-word movie-star moniker she’s been trying to come up with, while delivery boy Johnny thinks it’s the package he’s dropping off at Max Factor that has the salon’s makeup men salivating and not the one he’s concealing under his tailored trous.)
As for those makeup men, one of The Max Factor Factor’s cleverest conceits is to have three of them—Trevor Shor, Everjohn Feliciano, and Alex Boling as Men 1, 2, and 3—serve as an all-purpose Greek Chorus popping up throughout as assorted characters … and not just of the male persuasion.
Fans of Hollywood’s Golden Era will savor book writer Bewley’s pitch-perfect depiction of a time when the word “gay” still meant “merry” and the concept of “openly gay” was downright inconceivable, and though we will likely never know the truth about real-life ‘30s movie stars (and rumored lovers) Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, The Max Factor Factor allows us to imagine what might have been going on behind their closed bedroom doors.
Songwriters Blodgett and Wise give us one catchy tune and clever lyric after another while making sure that each character gets his or her own showcase number (or numbers). Add to that choreographer Palmer Davis’s delightful dance sequences (her hilarious Act Two opening “The Brightest Star” is particularly Busby Berkeley-riffic) and you’ve got the perfect follow-up to Celebration Theatre’s 2012 Contemporary Gay Hollywood smash Justin Love.
Under Celebration co-artistic director Michael A. Shepperd’s inspired direction, an all-around sensational cast of L.A. favorites and newbies (including numerous Broadway/National Tour vets) bring The Max Factor Factor’s colorful cast of characters to vivid, vibrant life.
The stellar duo of Carey and Todd give Lance and Hoyt a just-right blend of charisma and charm, and Musical Theatre Guild fans will relish seeing MTG mainstay Todd not only getting the meaty lead role he deserves but imbuing the part with pathos and depth.
New York theater vets Howell and Wilson make auspicious Los Angeles stage debuts, the former turning snappy-talking Alice Fern into the next-best-thing to Betty Grable, the latter taking what in other hands might be your garden-variety drunk and making her blossom into something both delectable and endearing.
The divine Olt makes Cordelia a veritable force of nature, Moran and McIntyre channel Louis B. Mayer and Jack L. Warner to perfection, and Burnett could not make for a more deliciously bubble-headed Eva.
As for the aptly named (but all-too-infrequently shirtless) Johnny Strong, dumb hunks don’t get any more appealing than the one brought to life by the handsome and talented Rich.
Last but most definitely not least are the marvelous Max Factor Trio of Boling, Feliciano, and Shor, clearly having the time of their lives (and in so doing giving us the time of ours) as makeup artists, studio staff, a trio of not-so-gorgeous Dreamgirls, and members of “The Underground Railroad” who facilitate Hoyt and Lance’s clandestine meetings.
With musical director Bryan Blaske on piano, Eric McCann on bass, and Brian Cannady on drums, sound designer Rebecca Kessin fine-tuning volume, and the entire cast delivering powerhouse vocals, The Max Factor Factor sounds fantastic, and it looks pretty darned fabulous as well thanks to Matthew Brian Denman’s expert lighting, Daniel Mahler’s gorgeous 1930s costumes, Carlo Maghirang’s spiffy art deco set, and Michael O’Hara’s spot-on properties.
Marcedes L. Clanton is stage manager and Matthew Noah assistant stage manager. Andreas Pantazis is assistant director, Taylor Anderson assistant scenic designer, and Matthew Muranaga technical director. Elise Dewsberry is dramaturg(e).
The Max Factor Factor is produced by Scott Guy.
Fictional film stars Hoyt Baxter and Lance Grant could scarcely have imagined a world of openly gay film/TV leading men like Zachary Quinto, Wentworth Miller, Matt Bomer, Matt Dallas, Jim Parsons, and Andrew Rannells (to mention just half-a-dozen of those who have come out in the past two or three years alone), a fact that adds poignancy to The Max Factor Factor’s many charms since we can’t help but wonder “What if?”
With little more than rumor, innuendo, and guesswork to reveal secrets hidden deep in the Hollywood closet from the moment the Hays Code kicked in in earnest back in 1934, The Max Factor Factor lets us get as close as we may ever get to the truth about Gay Hollywood way back when.
This is but one of many reasons to celebrate its (North) Hollywood arrival in 2014.
August 1, 2014
Photos: Bill Johnson