The 2018 spring show Under the Big Top by the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus promises a lot in the advertisements with some bold and risible quotes, “The campiest show on earth!” And “Cirque du So Gay” are just a few of the circus puns. So you get the sense from the get-go that there will be some tongue-in-cheek fun, music and lots of circus clichés tossed around, which is what you get but with extra helpings. It’s an evening full of lore and camp that mixes great show tunes, a few professional circus acts and a whole lot of gay pride complete with ringmaster (Sean Mallory), bearded lady (Reggie Owens) and conjoined twins (Micheal McGraw and Zackary Ruesler) in full drag belting out heart-wrenching renditions of “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and other carefully curated songs to assure maximum pride swell from the adoring and supportive audience. A joyful vibe emanated from 150 singers and the handful of circus artists, and even the wide array of deaf translators at the side of the stage were as psyched as the performers and often as engrossing to watch.
The circus theme is a perfect fit for the LGBT community, as its history is steeped in the embracing of the ‘other’—of giving freaks and geeks a home—and traditional circus is also known for the kind of glitz and glam that appeals to the dramatic spirits of queens everywhere. So that explains why the stereotypes of traditional circus were so employed, from chorus singers dressed as popcorn, to lions doing tricks, to a flea circus and conjoined twins. This curious mix of campy circus and gay pride was all in good spirits and at times very touching, but the actual number of circus acts was small, and in some cases the chorus singers even did a little circus themselves, juggling three tennis balls or being assisted by spotters on unicycles. The result was that the circus aspects of the show felt a little underwhelming, with the exception of course of a few of the seasoned performers who were brought in, such as Aerial Emory on hoops and Molly Plunk, doing a brief contortion number before her big moment on the tightrope to the actual song “Tightrope.” Also performing to an enthusiastic audience on Friday night were Sally Marvel the sword swallower, and Ray Gunn doing acrobatic moves on a cube.
But there was no shortage of circus-themed songs, the most notable among them “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute” (Barnum), “Come Look at the Freaks” (Side Show), “Circus” (Lukasz Gottwald), “Circus Band” (Charles Ives), “Tightrope” (Nathaniel Irvin III) and “Lion Tamer” (Magic Show) to name a few. But there were also touching songs about gay pride and self-acceptance sandwiched in between the group numbers, allowing several of the soloists to shine.
The culmination of all of the joy, pride and circus crested in the penultimate number “This is Me” (The Greatest Showman) where Andrew Holst did an act on Lyra while the chorus, the interpreters and the musical director/conductor James Morehead all absolutely rocked it in perfect unison, until the crowd felt compelled to join in with clapping and swaying. The message of the CGMC, as it is about to celebrate its 30th year, couldn’t be clearer: They’re here to “Entertain and enlighten, to inspire change and to build community.” It’s a worthy mission that they accomplish with great inclusivity and infectious joie de vivre as they share their musical prowess.
Under the Big Top will be performed just three times this weekend: May 18-20 at Athenaeum Theater, North Shore Center and Beverly Arts Center. Tickets are $28.