Playing it Straight on Broadway: Gay actors “het” it up in Musicals by Kevin M. Thomas

Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth in "Promises, Promises"

Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth in "Promises, Promises"

There’s been a lot of talk about how convincing out actor Sean Hayes is as a heterosexual in the musical revival of “Promises, Promises” as well as a little speculation on the authenticity of the work of Nathan Lane, also gay, as the head of “The Addams Family.”

Whether they are gay or straight, it shouldn’t really matter. If they’re good, well that’s another thing.

Straight men have played gays with less brouhaha such as Tom Hanks in his Oscar winning “Philadelphia.” And there was critical attention brought to Lea Salonga who was amazing (and Tony winning) in “Miss Saigon,” but she was actually Philippino. Being critical of this really shouldn’t be the point when you’re spending good money at the theatre as long as you’re entertained and get value out of the show and performances.

Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth

Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth

“Promises, Promises” really does have an excellent formula: popular TV star (Hayes) in his Broadway debuted playing along side one of the most beloved present day theater actresses (Kristen Chenoweth) – both singing and dancing to the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. These songs are classics and this isn’t a jukebox musical so popular in the theatre today. Instead, these hummable ditties all came from this show when it first came to the Broadway stage in the late 1960s. So whether you know “I Say a Little Prayer for You,” “A House is Not a Home” or “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” you can thank Bacharach and David for helping turn the 1960 Best Picture Oscar winner “The Apartment” into a 1960s period piece with good music.

And the music of course wouldn’t be so memorable if it wasn’t in the hands of Chenoweth, who is just the right talent to make you forget Dionne Warwick who turned these tunes into hits. A lot of the credit also goes to Hayes, who is in excellent voice as well, which is quite a surprise. In fact, in about about 15 minutes he makes you forget he was Jack from “Will & Grace” and makes himself at home as “Promises” Chuck Baxter.

Is Hayes the most masculine man working on Broadway? Likely not. But Chuck Baxter isn’t a macho character anyway and Hayes certainly has the great timing and physical comedy ability that Jack Lemmon did in the movie so you soon forget that he’s gay and simply a man who wants to be noticed by someone he’s attracted to.

The revival of “Promises, Promises” is not the best show on Broadway. But it is good. And those who even think about leaving at intermission will miss the real treat and that’s Katie Finneran as Marge, who takes over the beginning of the second act and runs with it. For the 15-20 minutes she’s on stage, this is her show. She owns it and captivates the audience. Her timing and phrasing are masterful and you can easily see why she beat veteran stage actress Angela Lansury for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play as she deserves it. And it doesn’t hurt to hear some of that great Neil Simon dialog, which is missing from so many shows today.

Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane in "The Addams Family"

Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane in "The Addams Family"

Also playing to packed crowds every night is “The Addams Family.” There was more surprises than it didn’t fare well at the Tony nominations over the fact that Nathan Lane is playing a straight man. Lane though too is convincing enough in the role. Not as masculine as John Astin from TV or Raul Julia from the movies, Lane’s Gomez Addams is played for laughs and benefits from Lane’s delivery.

Lane is in good voice as usual when he sings. His accent when he speaks comes and goes and isn’t very convincing.

He works well along side Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia but both characters are sidelined by the show’s main plot focus: Wednesday Addams has fallen in love.

There are way too many love stories out there right now that “The Addams Family” is almost derailed by making this a major plot point. It would have been nice to see more of the “creepy and kooky” life of the entire family instead of focusing so much on Wednesday and her boyfriend. To see Lane and Neuwirth play second banana to Krysta Rodriguez (as Wednesday) and Wesley Taylor (as her boyfriend) is almost sacrilegious as well as the under-utilized talent of Terrence Mann as the boyfriend’s father.

Even the wonderful Kevin Chamberlin as Uncle Fester and, to a lesser degree, Jackie Hoffman as Grandma are given more opportunities to shine than Lane and Neuwirth.  In a smaller part, Carolee Carmello as the boyfriend’s mother has a few good laughs and one great scene, making it clear to see why she’s part of this “family” but you still wonder what the draw was for Lane and Neuwirth, other than the paycheck.

All that aside, the costumes and sets are amazing and great to look at. And the story is safe enough for this to be cherished among families with younger children who don’t know or care who Lane and Neuwirth are. And the score is pleasant enough, but very few tunes that one would remember.

So whether they’re gay or straight, it doesn’t matter. As long as you get your money’s worth, that’s all that matters when it comes to entertaining the audience on the Broadway Stage.

In seeing these productions, you can see why Hayes is a attribute to “Promises” and the jury might still be out on Lane. Perhaps the more masculine Brian Stokes Mitchell or even Antonio Banderes might have had more of the sex appeal for the role. However, perhaps they weren’t available or passed. In any event, Lane is a marquee name and is tame enough to keep “Addams Family” family-oriented.

To see more and to get tickets for either of these shows, go to www.theaddamsfamilymusical.com or www.promisespromisesbroadway.com.