Dear Evan Handjob! Theatre Review: Shooting Star (Hudson Theatre, Los Angeles) ★★★★

Ahhh, the 90s. The Los Angeles Theatre scene seemed littered with what I liked to call, “Nude Gays Two Inches From Your Face Plays” with titles such as Naked Boys Singing and Making Porn. A front row seat in those small theaters almost guaranteed contact with some type of bodily fluid. While LGBTQ+ stage shows have thrived since then, we’ve seen so much more of the queer experience than just the sexualized aspects. While most would count this as progress, I kind of missed the lurid fun of those bygone productions.

Well, just when you thought you’d never have the chance to see guys in jockstraps dancing on poles again, comes Shooting Star, a new stage musical about the world of gay porn, whose book is written by Florian Klein, aka gay porn star Hans Berlin. With direction by Michael Bello, music by Thomas Zaufke, lyrics by Erik Ransom, and choreography by Jim Cooney, we not only get that 90s feeling back again, we get an ambitiously scaled, fun, moving show with songs you’ll actually hum on your way out. In its efforts to normalize gay porn, it relies on some too-familiar tropes at times, but it’s a tough tightrope walk to appeal to broader audiences when you start out with a niche idea.

The show centers around Taylor Trent (Taubert Nadalini), a bright-eyed Midwesterner who arrives in Los Angeles with the old suitcase and a dream of becoming an actor. Nadalini nails that wholesome innocence well and has a gorgeous singing voice. His character initially comes across as a bit of a Disney character with his Aladdin eyes, perfect features, and an “I Want” song always ready to go, but if you’ve ever watched anything ever, you know he won’t stay that way for very long. In fact, pretty early on while go-go dancing in a gay club, he gets scouted for his first porn shoot. With rent due and an acting career not even existing, Taylor dives right in and finds instant success.

Along the way, he finds his chosen family in this new world, starting with Mr. Sue (Karole Foreman), who directs his films and by sheer force of nature and casual ease creates an all-business but fun atmosphere at work. Taylor falls hard for his first scene partner, the legendary Jesse Apollo (Nathan Mohebbi), who keeps Trent at arms length as he focuses on a singing career. He also gets swept up by a nefarious manager, Tiger Black (Bettis Richardson), who plies him with drugs and clearly doesn’t have his best interests at heart as he sings “Party Like A Porn Star” to him. An older actor, James Grant (Michael Scott Harris) struggles with finding work but gives Taylor great career advice nonetheless in one of the most memorable melodies in the show, “Here To Have Sex”. Both of these songs, in fact, have become earworms to me, along with several others, which isn’t something easily achieved in musicals.

As we follow Taylor and company through the ups and downs of this business, I was struck by the ambition and scope of the production. Bello’s staging has his talented cast of 10 constantly criss-crossing and dancing so much, it felt like I was watching the Nine To Five Broadway musical, which if you’ve never seen is an incredibly complicated piece of staging. He makes the small Hudson Theatre seem much larger. The show employs projected social media postings throughout, giving it a Dear Evan Hanson aura and clearly updating a show which could have easily been set in the 90s.

It also helps that the cast has many standouts, including scene stealer Garrett Marshall, who has great comic timing and an explosive energy as the company’s sole “Gay For Pay” straight guy. Carson Robinette plays JR, the hilariously mouth-breathing upstart who fights the good fight as Taylor’s rising star overshadows his own, and he gives great attitude and side eye along the way. Christopher Robert Smith also scores as Martin Lords, a producer who treats his talent badly and will stop at nothing to grab Taylor out from under Mr. Sue.

At first, I thought the music didn’t quite match the milieu. With its propulsive rock/pop score, it reminded me of Rent meets Rock Of Ages with a lot of traditional Broadway style mixed in. My initial instincts would have been something more in the EDM style, but Klein’s vision for this show appears to want to sell a tough concept within a classic framework. With that comes some predictable plot twists and character arcs one has seen over and over. I get it. It’s a universal show about a smaller world…a world Klein would like for everyone to experience, and hell, A Star Is Born has been made several times and been successful, why not A Star Is Porn? We even get a reference to that story late in the play when an awards show doesn’t quite go as planned, and I found comfort in those familiar beats. Michael Scott Harris and Karole Foreman both get great 11th hour songs, so I’ll take predictable any day when you get treated to such pure passion and emotion as these two bring. It’s a show of very big voices and this cast delivers. It’s easy to see how this could be adapted to much bigger stages.

So, what about that elephant in the room, you say? Yes, there’s lots of nudity in the show. I think the audience would have rioted if a musical about gay porn didn’t have any, but it feels very organic and the sex scenes don’t take center stage but get the strobe light effect instead. So go ahead, take your horny grandparents to see it!

Shooting Star isn’t perfect. The journey Taylor takes resolves itself too easily at the end and his “Come To Jesus” moment happens a scene too early. Had he reacted specifically to the biggest tragedy the show has in store and not to a simple piece of advice he receives, it would have felt more earned than it does now. I also think the script and lyrics could use a little more edge and a little less of an on-the-nose style. I loved the scene where the porn actors took injections to maintain their hard-ons and thought it needed more details like that and a little less “let’s put on a show” energy. In the end, I’m also a little concerned that we’re not left with the most positive feeling about the industry it depicts. Still, its heart is in the right place, you feel something for these characters, and I really, really want the cast recording! The song, “This Is the Real Me” could be a hit now on the radio.

Shooting Star ends its sold out Los Angeles run at the Hudson Theatre on June 30th, but hopefully Klein and company can mount it elsewhere soon. It deserves the chance. I’m calling the 90s, folks, and I want my sexy gay plays back!

By Glenn Gaylord

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