Review of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song, starring Michael Urie & Mercedes Ruehl, on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    November 5, 2018
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    Think about it. When Harvey Fierstein was writing the components of Torch Song back in the late 1970’s, there was no AIDS. And it had only been a dozen years since it was legal for New York bars to serve gay and lesbian patrons. So, while a character like Arnold Beckoff (Michael Urie), a drag queen who longs for a committed, loving husband that he can acknowledge to the world, and a family of his own may seem normal to us now, back then, Fierstein was writing science fiction.

    The Torch Song that is currently rocking the Hayes Theater on Broadway is an edited version of Fierstein’s earlier compilation of his 3 plays International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First. Which he had cut down into Torch Song Trilogy, a 3-act play in 1981, and which garnered him a slew of awards including two Tonys. One for "Best Play" and one for "Best Actor". Fierstein and his signature gravelly voice and stature has become so synonymous with the role of Arnold – playing him in the 1988 movie version as well - that there hadn’t been a NYC production of Torch Song since the original. 

    Because Torch Song is really all about Arnold. And if you don’t have a strong, charismatic, vulnerable, glorious Arnold, well really, what’s the point? Luckily, Michael Urie is all that and more. Physically, he’s nothing like Fierstein, which is a good thing. If they had tried to cast a clone, it would have been impossible not to constantly compare the two. Urie makes the role his own from the opening monologue where he lays out Arnold’s wishes, hopes and dreams in a self-deprecating but unapologetically honest but guarded manor, to the last scene where he is a vulnerable wreck. And Urie alone is worth the price of admission.

    Although he’s a drag queen, Arnold is a romantic. And he is looking for love in all the wrong places. In the first act clearly labelled 1971, his journey starts in a seedy “back room” bar where he meets the handsome but closeted bisexual Ed (Ward Horton). The second act sees him and a new boyfriend Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen) visiting his “ex” Ed and Ed’s wife Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja) in their upstate country home in 1974. In the third act, we are in 1980, in Arnold’s apartment in New York. Nobody is in a romantic relationship, and Arnold’s mother, Mrs. Beckoff (Mercedes Ruehl) comes to town. Let the fireworks begin. Arnold and his mother are so clearly alike, it is no wonder they can’t get along.

    At one point in Torch Song Ed tells Arnold he doesn’t understand women. Apparently both gay and straight men have something in common. The character of Laurel is not very realistically drawn, and two dimensional at best. Roxanna Hope Radja does her best with this not very believable character. Which also proves that mothers are not seen as women, because the character of Arnold’s mother is spot on and portrayed perfectly by Mercedes Ruehl. Every inflection, every look, every sniff, is straight out of the Jewish mother’s playbook. The perfect blending of blame and affection. If I hadn’t known before I went into the theater that it was Mercedes Ruehl, I never would have thought it was her. 

    Ward Horton is well cast as the uptight and confused Ed, as is Michael Hsu Rosen as the young model Alan. Unfortunately, Jack DiFalco is miscast as the 15-year-old David, he’s too old for the part and it’s jarring. What always kept me in the moment were Clint Ramos’ period perfect costumes. Took me right back to my glory days – now don’t start counting boys and girls, it’s rude!

    (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

    What the popular press says...

    "In life, drama queens, those extravagantly emotional beings who suck up all the oxygen in a room, are fatiguing souls, to be avoided at all costs when one is tired. But, ah, in fiction — in books and film, and especially on the stage — these same creatures can be an energizing joy, as stimulating as four shots of espresso. That’s why I am advising you to make the acquaintance of a grade-A specimen of this spectacular genus, whose presence is overflowing the Helen Hayes Theater. His undramatic name is Arnold Beckoff, though he also goes by the more promising moniker of Virginia Ham. And, as embodied by Michael Urie in the happy revival of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song, which opened on Thursday night, Arnold is just the guy and gal to pull you out of your election-season weariness."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song fires on all cylinders in this Broadway revival, opening in the same theater where it premiered 36 years ago, and it’s even bigger and better than last year’s off-Broadway production. And that’s saying something considering that I was already a big fan. But wow! It is a full throttle ode to coming out, opening up, and following one’s heart."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song is a big wet smacker of a play that was asking righteous questions about gay identity, dignity and domesticity decades before such advancements as same-sex marriage, adoption rights and affirmative cultural representation became a reality. The revival first seen at Second Stage a year ago now comes to Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, where the milestone work opened in 1982 for an astonishing three-year run. Perhaps there's something liberating about being back within these historically significant walls that has coaxed Michael Urie out from behind the author's shadow to seize ownership of the heart-on-his-sleeve protagonist, Arnold Beckoff, in a virtuoso turn."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - NY1 - Hollywood Reporter