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Make Me Gorgeous!

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 15, 2023

Wade McCollum
Photo by Maria Baranova
Have you ever thought of being a hairdresser in a brothel? No? Well, that's merely one of the stops along the way in the life of professional female impersonator Kenneth "Mr. Madam" Marlowe, whose defiantly unconventional biography unfolds in playwright Donald Horn's (or just Donnie, as he prefers) Make Me Gorgeous! at Off-Broadway's Playhouse 46 at St. Luke's.

Actor Wade McCollum, whose credits include Wicked and the forthcoming Water for Elephants on Broadway, gives a glorious solo performance as the subject of the 90-minute picaresque romp through the story of the real-life Iowa-born Marlowe, whose openly gay lifestyle flaunted almost every convention of mid-twentieth century public (if not private) life in the U. S., culminating in gender reassignment surgery through which Kenneth was reborn as "Kate."

The play, adapted from Donnie's book "Mr. Madam: The Life and Times of Kenneth/Kate Marlowe," is a high-speed ride as we follow its subject from Iowa to Chicago to Calumet City to Indianapolis to New Orleans to Los Angeles, and finally, to San Francisco, where the play is set in 1975, the year of the surgery and where Kenneth/Kate is anchored as they relate their tale.

And what a tale it is, told as flamboyantly as possible. Assuming we can fully trust the word of the unconstrained teller, it is all about a life that began in 1926 under the none-too-watchful eye of an alcoholic mother and a gruff father who soon walked away from his family. That dysfunction, along with a general wanderlust, not to mention an unabashed carnal lust, led Kenneth to a wide-ranging career as, among others, a hustler, a hairdresser, madam of a gay prostitution ring, a private in the U. S. Army (a brief and ugly experience), a mortuary cosmetologist, and, yes, even as a Christian missionary. Because why not?

Wherever he roamed, Kenneth Marlowe's world was inhabited by sex workers, street hustlers, sugar daddies, small-time crooks, and others of this ilk. And Kenneth embraced and learned from all of them, the Candide of the generally less-embraced of society. And, hey, his mother had always wanted a girl, and wasn't it she who said, "Don't let the word 'can't' stop you. Sink your teeth like a bulldog and don't let go." Who was Kenneth to question her wisdom?

Wade McCollum as Kenneth enters singing a number called "We Can Be," with lyrics that go: "We can be boys; we can be girls. We can wear tiepins; we can wear pearls." But it is the closing line that defines the play: "We can even make you think, we are what we ain't." Throughout his enactment of Kenneth's story, McCollum, whose performance is directed by the playwright, proves it all by changing attire multiple times (check out the "dirty napkin" dress), imitating multiple other characters who cross Kenneth's path, performing a striptease in the manner of Kenneth's idols Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand, and occasionally singing (and quite well too). Never shy, this one, so be aware that if you are seated at one of the small round club tables close to the stage, you might be pulled into the action.

The high-spirited play with a big heart and a fun-time vibe makes good use of the small club-like space of the Playhouse 46 performing area, beautifully supported by the design team: set by Walt Spangler, lighting by Jamie Roderick, sound by Ien DeNio, and delicious costumes by Jeffrey Hinshaw. But, really, go for Wade McCollum's over-the-top performance. It is gorgeous!

Make Me Gorgeous!
Through December 31, 2023
Playhouse 46 at St. Luke's, 08 W 46th Street, New York NY
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