Tuesday, February 2, 2016

He is woman - and the audience roared

"I knew it was him. But I didn't see him."

The "him" veteran actress Henrietta Hermelin was referring to was Joe Bailey, whose performance we were discussing last night after the closing performance of "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers" at the The Ringwald Theatre. And the major compliment she gave him was 100-percent correct.

Joe, you see - billed only as J. Bailey in the program to further the illusion - played Sue Mengers, Hollywood's most powerful agent during the late 1960s through the early '80s. The well-researched script by John Logan takes place in 1981 at a pivotal point in the downswing of her career, on the night she is expecting a call from her number one client, Barbra Streisand. Streisand, you see, has just left Sue for another agency, and the super-agent, a longtime friend, wants to know why.

And so the show opens with the caftan-clad Sue parked on her couch, conversing with friends (the audience) while anticipating a call she does and does not want to receive. There she remains for the next 80 minutes or so, regaling us with juicy tidbits of her long and successful career - with us hanging on to each and every delicious morsel she tosses our way.

The concept of Joe wearing a dress is nothing new, of course; many of The Ringwald's most popular shows over the past eight years have featured him thusly clad. But here's what's different: Previous appearances in feminine attire have been in spoofs and satires, or in gender-bending productions in which the winks and nods between actor and audience acknowledge we're all in on the joke.

But that's not the case with "I'll Eat You Last." Logan's one-woman script is just that: a script written for a woman to portray its protagonist. (Its original run on Broadway featured Bette Midler as Sue.) And so with director Jamie Richards guiding from behind the scenes, Joe's goal was to develop a fully realized and realistic woman, thereby creating a believable character that would do justice to both the role and the person upon whom it is based.

To say he achieved his goal would be a major understatement.

As someone who has followed Joe's career since we first met at an interview more than a dozen years ago, it's safe for me to say that Joe sits among the "A-List" of actors whose work appears on area stages, having earned 13 Wilde Awards nominations since 2007. (He's tied for fourth place in total nominations received over the course of the awards' history.)

But here's what made this performance stand out: If you didn't know J. Bailey was a man, you would have believed a woman lived underneath the wig and makeup. And since Sue's legendary size kept her mostly home bound later in life, Joe had to keep us totally engaged while never leaving the couch.

Which he did. (He had a similar Herculean task earlier this season in "The Whale," a co-production with the UDM Theatre Company, which I thought couldn't be topped - until now.)

From start to finish, Joe's superb storytelling skills and creative instincts kept us hanging on Sue's every word. Based on my research, he seems to have fully grasped her colorful, larger-than-life personality - which he brought to life with carefully executed gestures and facial expressions. Every movement, every line and every expression - no matter how small or seemingly insignificant - was thoughtfully planned, fitting the character like a tight glove. As a result, we felt Sue's every emotion  - and by show's end, we wished our visit would last longer. Much longer.

So, yes: Henrietta's comment was correct. We didn't see Joe in the role; we only saw Sue. And that's a testament to the excellent work of Joe Bailey.

The Bottom Line: Rumor has it that "I'll Eat You Last" might return for a short run sometime soon. Keep watching EncoreMichigan.com for details - and then catch it if you can for an amazing evening of live theater!

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