West County Why

A musical about a gay couple is canceled but one about fascism is produced. The executive director of the West County Y tries to explain.

"Most of it took place in a bar," replies West County Y executive director Sean Allison. Even though the interview is taking place over the phone, it appears that he's saying this with a straight face.

For those "people that aren't experienced with the arts," a group in which Allison includes himself, La Cage is a light farce that centers on a middle-aged gay couple, an odd couple at that -- one restrained, the other a flaming drag queen. They attempt to placate the soon-to-be in-laws of the former's son by masquerading as man and wife. Silly, poignant, sentimental, La Cage provides audiences an entertaining entrée into a broader definition of family -- the kind Vice President Dick Cheney might adhere to when his right guard is down.

OK, it wasn't just the bar. "I did question the timing of La Cage aux Folles," Allison elaborates. He recalls the luncheon he held with Curtain Call Repertory Theatre's director Dennis Shelton, informing him of Allison's decision to cancel the barroom comedy. That luncheon was "the very same day the Supreme Court came down with the ruling on the Boy Scout issue. I felt it was such a politically hot topic, the timing might not be right for that kind of production and we ought to consider that in making our decision."

Danny Hellman
Danny Hellman

Allison contends that the Y is an inclusive organization. There is no gay issue. "You wouldn't see the Y having an issue anywhere like the Boy Scout issue. We welcome all people, both as employees, as members, as program participants, volunteers." (And besides, gay men have been meeting at the Y for years. And doesn't everybody love the song? "Young man ...." )

Curtain Call was -- until last month, when the company took its leave -- the resident performing-arts troupe at the West County Y's Chesterfield Community Theatre. One of the reasons the company left was the Y's skewed programming criteria. La Cage aux Folles was unsuited to the Y's mission to "build healthy spirits, minds and bodies," Allison says, reciting the credo, but Evita -- a musical about the rise of fascism in Chile with a heroine who sleeps her way to power -- conformed to that precept, apparently.

"Right," Allison responds quietly. "I don't know how to comment on that. I didn't characterize Evita in that way."

In Curtain Call's first full season, the community-theater group, consisting primarily of lawyers and doctors and secretaries and hotel managers -- not exactly mad bohemian types -- performed Gypsy, a play about a stripper, with stage settings that include a bawdy vaudeville house.

Allison has only been here two years and therefore missed the 1960s Stephen Sondheim musical; however, he says, "We would probably look at Gypsy. That is something we would probably look at to see if we felt it was appropriate."

Everything sure wasn't coming up roses with another Sondheim production, A Little Night Music, in which lovers entwine and disentangle sweetly to the strains of "A Weekend in the Country" and "Send in the Clowns." For the opening night of Curtain Call's production, someone from the arts-department staff put a sign on the door, alerting the audience that no one under the age of 18 would be allowed inside the theater -- a particularly surprising directive, given that Parkway West High School has presented the show.

Since when has A Little Night Music been NC-17?

Allison admits that evening was not one of the Y's proudest moments: "I thought that was a mistake to do. I said, 'We're not here to put ratings on productions.' I think if there is content that our constituents might consider not appropriate for younger children, we ought to at least let them make the decision as to whether or not to bring their kids. We ought to give them information in a friendly way and not prohibit people from viewing.

"That was not an appropriate method to handle that."

Allison speaks engagingly, earnestly. He's an altogether likable fellow whom Shelton describes as "a wonderful gentleman. He's a nice man. I just don't think he's well informed. Unfortunately, the amount of conversations that we had with the man never transpired unless I threatened to go to the media, and then he would call in a panic."

Shelton approached the West County Y three years ago, before Allison's tenure began, offering the club an abbreviated production of The Phantom of the Opera as a kind of audition piece. Curtain Call became the resident company soon thereafter. The Y funded the productions, paying royalties and financing sets and costumes -- for about $1,000 per show. Shelton gave Chesterfield "schlock theater" (his term) -- The Sound of Music, Mame, Hello, Dolly! But the company was itching for a greater challenge, and found it in Sweeney Todd (that wild Sondheim again), throat-slashing and cannibalism set to music.

Allison agrees that Sweeney brought Curtain Call, and the Y, the notoriety they needed. The press came out, the reviews were favorable and the production was nominated for 11 Arts for Life awards. A sold-out production of Jesus Christ Superstar followed. Annie, naturally, filled the seats, too. The budgets for productions increased as well, to $4,000-$7,000 per show.

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