Bathhouse: The Musical is soft gay porn masquerading as theater

click to enlarge The cast of Bathhouse: The Musical - SETH WALKER
Seth Walker
The cast of Bathhouse: The Musical

Arts on 9th is a new facility in Ybor City, featuring a theater, art gallery, photography studio and shop. It's a welcome addition to the Bay area scene, which ought to have 20 such spaces. But the first play offered there — Bathhouse: The Musical by Tim Evanicki and Esther Daack — is far from impressive.

Treating gay life as if it had no reality outside the sexual, it's essentially an evening of soft porn, of real and metaphorical crotch-grabbing with songs titled "Penises are like Snowflakes" and "Clicking for Dick." The irony is that the four onstage performers — Toph McRae, Jason Crase, Alexander Ferguson and Christopher McCabe — are expert singer/dancers, and a few of the show's songs feature attractive melodies and thrilling harmonies. But again and again, the lyrics aren't much better than what you'd find on a bathroom wall, and there's virtually no plot to engage our interest or create any suspense. That shouldn't keep audiences away — porn is perennially attractive, for obvious reasons — but if you're looking for a show with conventional theatrical interest, this is not the one. Its aim is not above the neck but below the waist.

The story — insofar as you can call it that — is about Billy (Ferguson), a first-time visitor to a bathhouse who's looking for a partner but doesn't know the appropriate etiquette. An offstage voice (Bart Gonterman) instructs and guides him, and three other young men, dressed like Billy in white towels only, sing about everything from the rules of hygiene ("So put a wrapper on his candy/ When he's in you/ Or you may feel the burning/ When you're in the loo") to online cruising ("I'm clicking for dick/ All offers considered/ Unless you're a chick") to the pleasures of the showers ('Cause in the showers/ It's candy for your eyes/ In the showers/ No one can lie about their size!").

The action is interrupted by a lecture on the seven basic penis shapes, with drawings on an oversize flipchart: the Straight and Narrow, the Banana Dick, the Sidewinder, the Captain Hook, the Tricky Dick, the Plunger, and the Corkscrew ("Let's just say, I'm lucky to be alive"). There are sarcastic attacks on homophobic religion ("They talked in Sunday school/ All about the golden rule/ Do unto others as you'd have them do to you/ I learned my lesson well so if that is the case/ Before next Sunday he'll be sitting on my face"), but there's also a segment on "Christmas at the Baths ("Christmas a the baths!/ Deck the halls with balls and hollies/ Christmas at the baths/ I've come here to get my jollies").

Finally, when the endless penis puns and sexual allusions have just about overwhelmed you, the character Maurice has a moving song about a dead lover ("The gifts we gave to each other/ Still sit beneath the tree/ The mem'ries of the life I had/ And what you meant to me.") But it's too little too late: This show is distinctly not about matters of the heart. Much more typical is a lyric from an earlier anthem: "Penises are special/ Penises are good/ They are always welcome in/ The neighborhood."

Angels in America it ain't.

Still, these singer/dancers are talented enough to be playing in Tony Kushner — or Stephen Sondheim. It's been a long time since I've heard such strong voices outside a conventional performing arts hall, and their execution of Kirsten Stiff Walker's choreography is also superb. Unfortunately, not much effort is made to distinguish any of the characters besides naïve Billy, so I don't have a good sense of the difference between David and Teddy, or of whether Billy's life would be happier with one of these rather than with Maurice. What does seem clear is that all three are obsessed with their sex organs, and none of them finds life outside the bathhouse worthy of reflection. But that's the tendency of most porn, come to think of it: to distract its audience from worldly cares and focus it on sex exclusively. Bathhouse: The Musical certainly does this. And if the theater program is to be believed, lots of people want this distraction: The show has reportedly "enjoyed sold-out runs in 15 cities in two countries."

So there's a market for porn. This we knew.

Anyway, welcome to Arts on 9th. And let's hope that future offerings will make this new space an important addition to theater life in the Bay area.

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