Casa Valentina - Harvey Fierstein Returning to Form

You remember that moment in Kinky Boots when Charlie Price left a tearful voicemail about how wrong he was and how right Lola was after the former called the latter out on her bullshit? That was just THE. WORST…Harvey Fierstein's writing not only was heavy-handed, but it framed the white, male, cisgender person as being the villainous asshole because he doesn’t wholly bow at the feet of the sassy, obnoxious, entitled drag queen whom could do no wrong because she is not accepted by her father…but she chews the scenery! Well, here’s the thing…I hated Lola and found her insufferable on her own merits. I refuse to give in to that type of manipulation; it represents the worst kind of writing.

Such is the irony that I feel like I needed to see Kinky Boots in order to truly appreciate Casa Valentina, which opened last week at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Because you know all the mistakes Fierstein made with the former? They are nowheres to be found in the latter (aside from Fierstein’s penchant for non-ending endings).

Casa Valentina is the real deal though and kind of a shock coming from Fierstein. Not so much the concept (in short, a bunch of men whom like to dress as their women alter-egos all convene at their safe-haven hotel in upstate New York in the early-60’s), but in how this story played out. It has its funny moments, but what I remember most-fondly is the drama, the tension and the interesting character dynamics. The mini-organization of cross-dressing men are presented with the opportunity to go public and be nationally recognized, which was the perfect macguffin for the story to progress organically.

This is a universe that needed exploring and not only did it feel like a progression of what existed before the audience is introduced to the story, Fierstein covered the entire gamut. The husband and wife who run the place, the regulars whom purvey the resort (that span various age groups and backstories), the apprehensive, wide-eyed newbie…you get fully-realized characters and different perspectives on this secret world of male cross-dressing. And, any debate or morality conflict wasn’t favored over the others, forcing me to proactively think about the story as it was unfolding. Fierstein knocked this element out of the park and left my friend and I to talk about the conflicts at intermission and after the show.

Despite the show being set in 1962 and the scenic design/costuming/language feeling “of that time,” the whole show felt modern to me. Casa Valentina and the cross-dressing men are an allegory for the LGBTQIA community - whether that be one person or something on a larger scale - and their constant struggle between being “out and proud” and being private and reclusive. This dimension wasn’t a necessity - the play worked fine as a stand-alone period piece - but it is a welcome sight that there was even more to this show then what meets the eye.

Of course, when you have Joe Mantello in the director’s chair, that can only be a good thing. He did a more stripped-down staging with one large house that alternates between indoor and outdoor, this bedroom or that dining room table. He also has a good hand on pacing - with all the men changing into (or out of) women’s clothing, each of those moments struck the perfect balance between “going there” and “going too far” in terms of cringe-worthiness. Considering Mantello could have copped out and sequestered some of the costume changes to happen off stage, it was quite a risk that, thankfully, didn’t backfire. 

He also coaxes some great work from his ensemble - particularly, Mare Winningham’s nurturing and understanding wife/mother figure and Gabriel Ebert’s heart-wrenching “new-to-the-scene” character that gets more then he bargained for. But everyone is freakin’ stellar and these guys sashay in those heels like it’s second-nature. It’s been a long time since Harvey Fierstein debuted a play on Broadway and, evidently, when he is given less-frothy entertainment in the Newsies and Kinky Boots mold, he can achieve something pertinent and dramatic. Snaps all around!

Ticket Provided by the Production

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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