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"Time Square Angel" Is Filled With Holiday Spirits

Wette Midler an Nora Ogunleye
Richmond drag performer Wette Midler, stars as Irish O’Flanagan, a hard-boiled dame in need of a Christmas miracle, along with Nora Ogunleye as her confidante Peona, in Richmond Triangle Players production of Charles Busch’s play “Times Square Angel” running through December 21 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre in Scott’s Addition. Tickets at Photo by John MacLellan.

Richmond Triangle Players and director Melissa Rayford opened the holiday season with a lively and delightful presentation of Charles Busch’s Christmas gift to the theatre, “Times Square Angel.” The play has become a staple of the off-Broadway end of the year schedule with Busch himself leading a staged reading of the play every year since 2000.

Like many holiday plays, the plot centers around redemption, forgiveness, and second chances, this case embodied by the two main characters, an almost angel named Albert, played with bravado and heart by Jeffrey Cole, and the tough as nails showgirl Irish O’Flanagan played delightfully over the top by Wette Midler, the nom de travestissement of Luke Newsome. O’Flanagan is faced with a mortal dilemma on what could be her last night on earth and it’s up to Albert, a former vaudeville magician, to show her the error of her past ways and make it possible for her to find her way back to being a good person.

If you hear strains of classics like A Christmas Carol or It’s A Wonderful Life, it’s deliberate as Busch’s early work draws heavily on the mythology of the movies for inspiration. He then adds lots of funny jokes, commentaries on life in general and often times sprinkled with humor about situations happening in the era the play is portraying.

But don’t worry about a thing, as a different Marley, Bob Marley would say, everything is going to be alright. With plenty of twists and turns, Albert does his very best to show O’Flanagan the light and let her make up her mind to turn her back on the darkness of the road she’s heading down and return to her true nature of love and understanding.

While the spotlight stays on O’Flanagan and Albert for most of the play, they are surrounded by a bevy of wonderful performers, most of whom take on multiple roles such as angels, gangsters, club performers, newsboys, and anything else that Busch can throw at the proverbial fourth wall to see what sticks.

A few standout performances include Michael Hawke as the washed up nightclub performer Helen Sternhan, who now spends most of her time drunk and complaining about how the new performers pushed out the “real” stars, and Mrs. Paine, the mother of O’Flanagan’s rich fiancée who can’t stand to see her son spiraling into O’Flanagan’s orbit. Over the years, I’ve teased Hawke about some of his more flamboyant roles, and while he camps up the caricature of Helen, he plays Mrs. Paine much more realistic and the result is a more nuanced performance – and also serves to contrast with Helen’s antics.

Another performance I enjoyed was Eddie Webster as the villainous Chick, the enamored Dexter Paine, and a reporter. I’ve only seen a little of Webster’s work previously and while he had left me with good impressions, he truly has a chance to show off his versatility in this production.

Also Carlen Kernish as the gee-whiz-I-really-love-you-Irish Eddie, keeps much of the play grounded as one of the few people who have remained loyal to O’Flanagan through the years and sees her for how she used to be and not what she’s become. Nora Ogunleye is Peona, O’Flanagan’s maid and occasional confidant that has stayed loyal to O’Flanagan despite the rough treatment that’s often dealt her.

There are a number of other performers scurrying around the action that add lovely touches and I look forward to seeing their work develop further as they get more chances in their careers.

On the technical side, Mercedes Schaum’s set is very good at assuming locations as different as heaven, an abandoned warehouse, and O’Flanagan’s dressing room. Austin Harber’s lights are decent and blend well with Lucian Restivo’s sound and projections. For my money though, the two hardest working tech masters were Alex Valentin for costumes that range from the simply elegant to thrift store tacky. That’s the kind of spirit Busch is famous for on many of his earliest plays. The other is Joel Furtick for hair and make up. Both are integral for creating the illusion of the play and both Valentin and Furtick deliver excellent work.

Now, for director Melissa Rayford. I’ve known Rayford for several years and have watched her grow from a capable assistant director to now helming several different productions. In total transparency, she is an employee of VPM as are several amazingly talented people from the theatre community. Despite our friendship, we have always made a clear divide between our working life in the theatre and our relationship at work. That being said, I am delighted by her work on “Times Square Angel.” It’s a tricky play to give equal consideration for the camp nature of the work and the sentimental emotions it strives to evoke.

She has walked that tightrope with grace and just enough jokes (and an ending) that is guaranteed to send everyone home happy and in a good mood for the holidays.

For my money, “Times Square Angel” is a definite must see.

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