Keeping the flame lit

1812 Productions presents Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song

3 minute read
Stern lounges prettily in drag, missing his wig, wearing a patterned red robe, dressing-room lights & white vanity behind him
Effective specificity: Jamison Stern as Arnold Beckhoff in ‘Torch Song’ at 1812. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song is coming to Philly for the first time, in a poignant new staging from 1812 Productions. Built from three one-act plays, the original work premiered on Broadway in 1982, winning the Tony for Best Play and running for more than 1,000 performances.

Torch Song Trilogy, the show's original presentation, was divided into three separate acts and featured a torch singer, Lady Blues, who would sing standards in between scenes. Because the acts themselves were based on three separate plays, each feels distinct, both in themes and style. In 2018, Fierstein revised the show by reallocating the three acts into two and cutting the torch singer, and this is the version now onstage at 1812. While these revisions shortened the show considerably (from four hours to about three), Torch Song’s two-act structure can feel jarring given how stylistically different the three original acts were.

A particular story of queer identity

The show tells the story of Jewish drag queen Arnold Beckhoff as he seeks love and family in New York in the 1970s and early 80s. The show hinges on his relationship with Ed, a bisexual professor who leaves Arnold for a woman named Laurel. In the show's second act, Arnold is on the cusp of adopting David, a gay teen, when his hyper-critical mother comes to town for a visit.

Fierstein was writing after the revolutionary potential of Stonewall and before the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Arnold is no queer separatist; he longs for a monogamous, heteronormative family life. While some may argue this presents a highly conservative view of gay identity, director Bill Fennelly makes the smart choice of highlighting the historical specificity of the setting. This is not a universalizing story of queer identity but a particular one, from a particular moment. Through archival footage (video design by Michael Long), we understand the fuller spectrum of queer life happening around Arnold and his smaller community. These projections also allow for images of old movie starlets in between scenes, infusing the show with the campy references of the original.

Gay canon, 40 years later

The ensemble is fantastic across the board. Jamison Stern is a revelation as Arnold, embodying the neurosis, fragility, and humor of the protagonist. Balancing out Stern's frenetic performance, Gregory Isaac's Ed is grounded, if slightly aloof. In supporting roles, Karen Peakes is a hoot as Laurel, Tyler Elliott is both funny and hunky as Alan, and in the show's final act, Elliot Colahan is a plucky, flirtatious, and flamboyant teen. Grace Gonglewski, playing Arnold's mother, stops the show with her fierce command of the stage. During the final curtain, the sense of community is palpable among the cast, even though quite a few members never share any stage time.

Chris Haig's set evolves with the story, slowly revealing itself. Light and sound design by Mike Inwood and Chris Sannino, respectively, are effective. Costumes by Rebecca Kanach are period-appropriate, although I do wish Arnold's drag ensemble felt more glamorous.

Leaving the play, I was struck by its power and resonance more than 40 years after its original premiere. This production makes a case for Torch Song to be considered gay canon.

Know before you go: Torch Song is recommended for ages 16 and up.

What, When, Where

Torch Song. By Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Bill Fennelly. $44-$48. Through May 19, 2024 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia.


The theater at Plays & Players is wheelchair-accessible, but the bathrooms are accessible only by stairs. Masks are required at the 2pm performance on May 12 and the 7pm performance on May 16, and optional on all other dates.

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