In the middle of the first scene of “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” I started having flashbacks to my high school days and even to the time I was a Rotary Scholar in Sheffield, England. This musical is an amusing tale about a 16-year-old boy’s first faltering steps toward his dream job.
Mind you, those steps are in super high red heels and include lessons in sass because “A boy in a dress is something to be laughed at; a drag queen is something to be feared.” While the pseudo scientific vocational test shows that the titular Jamie (Layton Williams) should be a fork lift driver, his real dream is to be fiercer than Beyoncé and twice as glamorous. He’s worshipping at the feet of RuPaul and he’s a boy in search of a mentor with an absentee father figure (Cameron Johnson).
Jamie’s father has long since parted ways with Jamie’s mother, Margaret New (Melissa Jacques). Margaret with her friend Ray (Shobna Gulati) are Jamie’s biggest supporters and, for Jamie’s sweet 16, the only people at his party. Margaret buys a card for Jamie to mask the father’s total neglect. Only Jamie believes his father loves him, but that little fiction will be striped away.
For his birthday, Margaret buys Jamie what I used to call “fuck-me” red high heels. The red patent leather shoes have long narrow heels. Jamie takes his first walk and now seeks a dress. Looking for a dress, he meets Hugo (Roy Haylock) who tells him about the legendary Loco Chanelle (Bianca del Rio). Drag queens need a deliciously outrageous backstory and a name. By the end of Act I, Jamie will have those when he wears the blood red dress, formerly worn by Loco Chanelle to his virgin walk on to a drag queen stage.
On the way to his transvestite glory, Jamie will also rely upon his best friend at school, his “fag hag” (the exact phrase used in the show), Pritti Pasha (Hiba Elchikhe). Pritti is a Muslim with a Hindu first name and wears a head scarf. She prefers to do so because she is modest and yet she accepts Jamie as he is and as he wants to be unlike the school administrators, represented by Miss Hedge (Gillian Ford).
On our way home, my husband asked if there were any openly gay people in my high school. There was someone who was gay, another person who people thought was gay (but I know he had an interest in a specific girl) and two girls that people thought were a lesbian couple (but were just BFFs). People (or the high school boys) were nicer to the faux lesbian couple.
In high school, I had voiced a wish to attend the prom in a tuxedo. I remember being denigrated by frenemies whom I am no longer in contact with. I don’t regret not attending the prom; my older sister had not so it was an uphill battle and finding high heel shoes was enough of a challenge to make me jealous that Jamie’s mum found his.
I do regret not attending theater while I was in Sheffield, this show originated at the Sheffield Theatres, home to three theaters: the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum. It opened at the Crucible in 2017 and then moved to the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End. My year in Sheffield (decades ago), I was not yet a theater critic, but I still had an interest in theater, enough to eventually attend productions on the West End of London. Sheffield is also the setting of “The Full Monty.”
“The Full Monty” and “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” seem rather tame in Los Angeles County, despite the long drought of in-person stage productions. Los Angeles County is home to the West Hollywood Cheerleaders and the original production of “Naked Men Singing.” I’ve been to many performances where the best looking person in a dress was a man dressed as a woman. Some days, I would have just given my face a quick slash of lipstick and find myself disappointed in my lack of effort as a woman.
There is something to be said about getting into a glamorous dress and slipping on opera gloves and heels as high as you can walk or dance in. Such costuming might be silly for superheroes but it can be lovely for a night out, dancing or just showing up and showing off. Instead of surrendering to any musical ear worm, I left the show trying to remember the drag queens I had seen in small equity-waiver venues: Miss Minx and Miss Coco Peru. I also remembered the traditions of both the English stage during the time of Shakespeare and the current continuing traditions of Peking Opera, Kabuki and Noh. Then there are the new traditions of Takarazuka–women playing all the roles. Men as women can and do command the stage, and even in the English-speaking world–people may have forgotten Milton Berle’s drag or Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, but the Melbourne-born Dame Edna of the wisteria-hued hair was certainly being fabulous as late as 2015 during “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye – Farewell Tour” which came to the Ahmanson in January of that year for a two-month stay.
Although RuPaul has said, “I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?” in this musical, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” makes it clear that Jamie is interested in dressing in a less outrageous traditionally feminine manner as well. Layton William’s Jamie is touchingly sweet and slyly subversive. Instead of being a drama queen (although he’s a bit of that, too), this version of Jamie seems to be a young person feeling the power and faux immortality of youth.
Layton Williams and Roy Haylock (Bianca Del Rio, Season 6 winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2014) are reprising their roles from the West End hit production that was nominated for five Olivier Award.
As Jamie’s mother, Melissa Jacques does have one killer song, “He’s My Boy.” Elchikhe as bestie Pritti gives balance on the question of the problems of feminine beauty and such definitions. One wishes every child has a parent this loving, this sacrificing and this supportive as the child blossoms into tentative adulthood. A bit of adversity helps toughen one up. Under Jonathan Butterell’s direction (with music by Dan Gillespie Sells and book and lyrics by Tom MacRae), this is a tender retelling of a Cinderella story, with a drag queen fairy godmother named Loco Chanelle and no real villains except self-doubt.
“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is a beautiful musical about diversity and how a parent can be supportive and one can find one’s way with the right mentor. It’s a ode to finding the right red dress (“The Legend of Loco Chanelle (and the Blood Red Dress)”) and it’s a call to discuss world theater and, in my mind, insure that traditional East Asian theater is included in the arts curriculum, beside Shakespeare and Moliere, in the US and Great Britain high schools. Would that make life in high schools better? Changing times seem to have made high school better. I know high school for me was better than it was for my parents because although there was definitely anti-Asian prejudice, it was less overt. If people saw there were on-going traditions of men performing as women, that might broaden some minds even if they avoid RuPaul’s reality show.
“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is the kind of musical that can start meaningful conversations. See it if you can. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” continues at the Ahmanson until 20 February 2022. Tickets start at $40. They are available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 972-4400 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012).
Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes (including intermission).