A Review of “Torch Song” by Alan Jozwiak
“I think my biggest problem is being young and beautiful. It’s my biggest problem because I’ve never been young and beautiful.”
In his opening monologue, torch-singer and drag queen Arnold Beckhoff (Jayvon Shack) coyly confesses the above observation. The line gets a big laugh from the audience but underlies this singer of sentimental romance songs’ struggle for finding love and connection.
That search for love and connection forms the basis of Northern Kentucky University‘s (NKU) production of “Torch Song.” For those who might not have heard the term, a torch song is a sentimental love song, like the one referenced in the title of this review. Showcasing two out of the three acts of Harvey Fierstein‘s Tony-Award winning “Torch Song Trilogy,” “Torch Song” explores the ups and down of gay life post-Stonewall to pre-AIDS.
This NKU production is rich with strong acting and compelling scenes. Center stage is Jayvon Shack’s portrayal of Arnold Beckhoff. Shack does a great job at portraying Arnold’s neediness in Act I and his struggle to forge a new life in Act II. Shack can channel Arnold’s diva tendencies to great effect and is also good at physical comedy. There is one scene with Arnold in a bar with his offstage friend Murray that is a laugh riot.
Arnold’s love interest and sparring partner in the romance department is the public-school teacher Ed Reiss (Evan Rogers). Reiss is a bisexual who is having an affair with Arnold while also pursing (and later marrying) his girlfriend Laurel (Emily Hilbrecht). Rogers conveys his character’s angst and confusion in sorting out his feelings for both Arnold and Laurel. He delivers a believable performance as a tortured young man.
Also strong are Arnold’s mother Mrs. Beckhoff (Gabby Paul). From the moment she’s onstage, she embodies the essence of meddling Jewish motherhood. She becomes a worthy foil for Arnold in Act II. (My biggest regret with her role is that she didn’t follow through and make the latkes that she starts making before her big fight with Arnold. I had a feeling they would have been delicious.)
Finally, Nick Rohr plays the role of David to the hilt. A naturally gifted comedic actor with an equally impressive set of pipes (he sings a torch song during the preshow cabaret), Rohr adds a touch of charm and mischievousness to the proceedings whenever he’s on stage.
Director Michael Hatton crafted a engaging and satisfying evening of theater with some challenging material. There is an extended bedroom scene that dominates the end of Act I which is beautifully staged. In the hands of a lesser director, it could have been a train wreck.
To honor the tradition of torch song-singing, Hatton and Music Director Damon Stevens offer a twenty-plus minute pre-show where various cast members sing torch songs as if they were in the venue where Arnold performs his drag routine.
This production of “Torch Song” showcases the best aspects of the NKU actors. It is a strong outing for the start of the NKU’s theater season. “Torch Song” runs from September 29 to October 9, 2021 in the Strauss Theatre. For more information on the production and tickets, go to the NKU Theatre website https://www.nku.edu/academics/sota/news/2021/torchsong.html
Alan Jozwiak is a local playwright who teaches in the English department at University of Cincinnati.