Not having been to a live musical performance for almost two years, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie on Friday, January 21st at the Ahmanson Theatre was welcomed with open arms of sequined sleeves, as the quirky cast gave us emotional cores of a mother and son relationship, the power of friendship, and loving yourself through identity exploration. It’s easy to default to the traditional memory of what musical voices have sounded like in the past when we’ve been missing Broadway for so long, like the booming voices of Kristin Chenoweth or Sutton Foster. But listening to the breathy and soft yet soulful voice of Layton Williams, who’s remarkable performance of lead character Jamie New, was a wonderful reminder that our idea of what makes a voice “good” has evolved over the years, as the audience’s generation has re-written the rules of perfection in 2022. This being a key thread in the evening’s performances both in choreography, movement artistry, and performance alike…perfection just simply doesn’t exist, and striving for anything but your best self, just as you are, is a waste of time.
Already walking into the grand Ahmanson in DTLA, you’re greeted with an intriguing set of colored light filled window boxes stacked one on top of the other, with several desks and seating occupying center stage. Much like the silhouette in Cell Block Tango from the musical Chicago, we see the orchestra begin setting up their instruments and taking their seats. Almost right away, we are hit with the first musical number of Act I “And You Don’t Even Know It” with music by Dan Gillespie Sells and lyrics by Tom MacRae, with choreography by the brilliant Kate Prince. Prince’s choreography, from the first number to the last, was most notably celebrated in larger cast offerings like “Spotlight”, “Over The Top”, and “The Prom Song” where the hip-hop inspired movement is grounded in Prince’s company mission statement acknowledging “…that we would not be here today without Black Culture.” In Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Prince beautifully connects each background story teller with the moments happening center stage, producing an overwhelming effect of unity, collaboration, and togetherness. What I loved most about Prince’s choreography, is her ability to tap into relatable content as it applies in our, mostly virtual, world of entertainment today. Like, watching a group of students on TikTok but live, but with more enthusiasm, but with soul and purpose that you can feel radiating from the stage. She quotes, “We will continue to tell stories in the shows that we make that speak to the struggle for equality, overcoming oppression, defeating prejudice and that are actively anti-racist”. Since Everybody’s Talking About Jamie tells the story of a teenage boy’s journey and determination to, not only wear a dress to prom, but ultimately become a drag queen performer, Prince’s choreography and mission perfectly fits into the rebellion of always fighting for your true self in the body you were given.
The musical also featured a projection/video component showcasing it’s true pop inspired demeanor and reference to music video staging, which truly hit a nostalgic string for 90’s babies (think Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys) but streamlined a favored feature in today’s dance culture and dance media community.
The performance features a series of scenes both musical and monologue heavy, taking us through the various obstacles Jamie New faces as he fights his school administration and community in the approval of wearing a dress to his school prom. He’s taken under the wing of two true superheroes. The first being Hugo who is also drag performer Loco Chanelle played by season six winner of Ru Paul’s Drag Race Bianca Del Rio/Roy Haylock. Hugo, who owns a dress shop in Sheffield, a city in England where the scenes take place, encourages Jamie to appear at a local nightclub for his coming out performance and is constantly talking Jamie into makeup decisions, clothing directions, and of course inner beauty as the most loyal gift of them all. The snarky and fluid comedy we’re used to from Bianca stays true in her reprised role as Loco Chanelle, with the surprising aspect of actually hearing Bianca’s voice! So used to the lip syncing challenges and YouTube performances, it was such a wonderful come full circle moment to hear Roy sing as Hugo and Loco Chanelle. Perhaps making us all fall in love with Roy over again as we connect the drag queen’s new persona as a Broadway performer to his long list of accomplishments.
The second and most heart wrenching relationship, and supporter of Jamie’s, is his mother Margaret New, played by Melissa Jacques. Margaret is constantly covering for Jamie’s dead-beat father, played by Cameron Johnson, by buying flowers, cards, and a brand new dress in his name. Jacques, who has an Eva Cassidy meets Aretha Franklin soul to her voice, becomes the mother we all want as she sticks up for Jamie against school director Miss Hedge, played by Gillian Ford, and even her own better judgment, knowing her support is worth more than any of the little money she has for Jamie. Jacques’ surprising vocals in Act Two’s “He’s My Boy” silenced audience members right down to a pin drop, as we can all relate to loving someone or something difficult more than we even love ourselves. Probably the most stationary performer out of the cast, we never see Margaret lose her temper, get hot, or even advance towards another character. With her gentle persona of a proud mama, and her larger than life inner voice, displayed in another scene called “If I Met Myself Again”, we are reminded that stillness can often be the loudest dance of all.
While the musical doesn’t do a deep dive into the violence young boys face in the LGBTQ+ community, hinting at the pressures to be something you’re not is acknowledged in scene “Ugly In This Ugly World” sung by Williams. For a night of theater escapism, handling the horrors of reality in this pop music ballad might be a win for such a present musical production. For as light and optimistic as the musical is, the scenes of empowerment hit just as hard as any physical blow. Pritti Pasha, played by Hiba Elchikhe takes on the role of Jamie’s best friend being an outsider herself as a Muslim hijab wearing student who take her studies seriously. Knowing what it’s like to be different, we see Pritti take Jamie’s adorable quirky remarks about himself and surroundings and spin them into phrasing he may understand. At one point, Jamie and Pritti have a conversation about separating himself from his new drag name MiMi quoting, “…I’m going to be a doctor, doesn’t mean I have to go everywhere swinging my stethoscope”. Pritti is, or has been at one point, a thought process come to life for most of us trying to run through the world as fast as the world runs us. Elchikhe beautifully portrays Pritti as a normal classmate trying to understand what a drag performer even means? And how does homosexuality fit into the equation and does it always apply? She represents both the demand for knowledge and the openness of understanding. A key figure in this portrayal of hidden eccentricity, it’s hard not to fall madly in love with Pritti as much as Jamie himself for her own obstacles and journey as an outcast.
With so much upsetting news in our world today, only exacerbated by the presence of covid, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was like slowly munching on a candy necklace, making you grin like a child on the outside and digesting yummy, but hard on the stomach sugar, on the inside. With a sort of lightness from the characters, and the performers who portray them, it never hurts to remind us all that our dreams are what make us beautiful. As Jamie says, “A boy in a dress is something to be laughed at — a drag queen is something to be feared”.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through February 20, 2022. For more information and tickets, please click HERE.
To learn more about the Center Theatre Group, please visit their website.
Written by Grace Courvoisier for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Layton Williams as ‘Jamie New’ (center) and cast in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – Photo by Johan Persson