I sure know who he is now, ruby-red sparkly boots and all.
Hall is an amazing artist, one of those hard-to-define souls who knows how to find his light on the stage and never let it go. His new show, which serves as a complement to his recently released YouTube concept-album video of the same name (now at more than 1.4 million views), is a distinctive and moving experience: It’s audaciously original, intellectually charged, fiercely staged and spilling over with raw, emotional energy. The show manages to feel bright and fun and yet quite thoughtful – a rare and exhilarating combination.
And it exceeded, in terms of talent and design, some of the national touring musicals that stop at the Saroyan Theatre. Instead, it squeezed into the intimate Tower Theatre with a cast of 18 top-notch performers, making it easily the most successfully ambitious thing I’ve seen staged at the venue. Sure, the stage is tiny and there were some sound and technical issues Thursday night, but overall I was impressed with the scope and impact.
Hall puts his own spin on the classic “Wizard of Oz” tale, except this time he plays nearly all the parts as he takes us on autobiographical journey. (As a “different” kind of child growing up in Texas, after all, he often had to play by himself anyway.) Sometimes clad in the short pants of a schoolboy – his own version of Dorothy – he appears at various times as reimagined incarnations of the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, Hall spins a tale with original music and lyrics as he charts his own journey of self-discovery, with his own “Yellow Brick Road” leading him to the Emerald City of “Oz Angeles,” where he must decide whether to play by the entertainment industry’s rules or branch out on his own.
Along the way, he explores issues relating to his sexuality (there’s a tender scene with his first boyfriend, played by a stellar Jay Bordonada) and his pained relationship with his mother (Teresa Stanley in a beautifully voiced and acted performance). There are fun barbs at the dark side of social media (Chester Lockhart drove the audience to a frenzy as an empty-headed celebrity obsessed with being a “verified” user with 10 million followers) and a touching segment (“Water Guns”) on gun violence, all too appropriate for these times. (“Too much blood on these yellow-bricked streets,” a poignant lyric goes.)
Time and again, Hall puts a sly spin on societal and theatrical conventions. The show’s true “love story” emerges as the one between him and his mother instead of a conventional romance. When he tries to break into show biz, a powerful woman wants sex from him – not a usual plot twist in a world in which men usually make such moves on women.
Technically, it’s a rush. The slick and vibrant production design uses clips from the YouTube concept album as a backdrop. The often genre-bending costumes are fiercely conceived. And the whip-smart choreography ranges from cheeky and raucous to elegant and – in an encore moment that will remind theater buffs of “The Will Rogers Follies” – downright inspired.
Most of all, I was taken with the show’s under-the-radar personality, even as crisply produced as it is. Hall certainly brings big-league credentials to the table, including a season on “American Idol,” a role on “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and a stint on Broadway. But there’s something deliciously subversive about “Straight Outta Oz” in the way Hall is subverting the conventions of Old School Fame and basically going directly to the people. (Which is what social media is all about, when you think about it.)
Although the Tower Theatre was little more than half full, the audience was as electric as I’ve ever seen in that space, and the performance fed upon and ultimately crackled with that energy. Something in me guesses that Todrick Hall is going to take over the world, one YouTube follower at a time.