Theater Review: The Harvey Milk Show

Harvey MilkBy Manning Harris

“You gotta give them hope,” Harvey Milk often said, referring primarily to his gay constituency, but really to all humankind.  He also was adamant in telling people that “You count.  You matter.”

Who could resist such exhortations?  Most people know (certainly if you saw the Academy Award-winning 2008 film) that on November 8, 1977, Milk became the first openly gay man elected to any substantial public office in the United States, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  Onstage Atlanta’s fine new production of the musical “The Harvey Milk Show,” running through November 21, is giving Atlanta audiences a chance to rediscover Milk’s story.  The book and lyrics are by Dan Pruitt; the music is by Atlantan Patrick Hutchison, who is also the show’s musical director.

A little history:  “The Times of Harvey Milk” won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1985.  “The Harvey Milk Show” premiered at Atlanta’s Actor’s Express in 1991 to great acclaim; the show was performed again as a part of Arts Festival of the 1996 Olympic Games.  The current Onstage production, directed by Barbara Cole Uterhardt, is the first revival in Atlanta since the Olympics.

The musical version is faithful to the real-life Harvey Milk and Dan White; the rest of the characters are composites, as opposed to the recent film, in which all the characters (with their real names) are featured.  But rest assured, the main arc of Harvey’s story is intact and  funny, moving, and powerful. “Milk’s” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black writes that Harvey Milk was not a born leader, but he had something that many gay people of his generation lacked:  self-esteem, as well as sense of entitlement that empowered him to do what needed to be done.  Comedienne Margaret Cho, speaking of minorities, writes, “For us, to have self-esteem is truly an act of revolution; and our revolution is long overdue.”   Harvey Milk knew that 30 years ago.

The all-important role of Harvey is played by Geoffrey Uterhardt, and he does a highly creditable job of capturing his essence.  Visually, he’s quite remarkable, especially with the long hair.  Bryan Lee   is affecting as Harvey’s young friend and lover, Jamey.  He’s touching in his vulnerability, especially in songs like “Dance With a Cowboy.”  Both men have very pleasant singing voices, if a bit short on power.  (Sing out, Louise, as Mama Rose would say.)  Dan White, the all-American boy gone wrong, is played with appropriate charm and menace by Jeffrey Brown.

There are some strong women here (vocally and dramatically), especially Kristel Wunderlin and Amanda Pickard Hardie; also Pat Bell, Renee Najour-Payne, and Cathe Hall Payne.  Featured in the cast are Joey Ellington, LaMichael R. Hendrix, Luis R. Hernandez, Patrick Hill, Charlie Miller, Greg Morris, DeWayne Morgan, Barry West, and Camilla Zaepfel.

Choreographer Colleen Shannon Gaenssley’s work is witty, especially in crowd-pleasers like “Pooper Scooper.”  It’s easy to forget that Harvey Milk himself was all about fun and joy—that’s what made him so magnetic.

Patrick Hutchison’s music and Dan Pruitt’s lyrics are by turns light-hearted, warm, and moving.  “The Harvey Milk Show” deserves an audience; it’s playing at its Decatur home on weekends through November 21.  Check schedules for exact times and reservations at www.onstageatlanta.com.

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