You shouldn't be reading this review right now—according to the folks at Intiman Theater, reviews of its world-premiere musical last weekend aren't even supposed to exist. "We have a strict no-review policy," wrote Intiman's communications director when I inquired about tickets. "Can you send me a written no-review agreement for Stu for Silverton?"
This was strange. Artistic director Andrew Russell had been talking up the project—a collaboration between himself and New York–based artists Peter Duchan and Breedlove—for almost a year. Stu is scheduled for a full run as one-quarter of Intiman's four-play summer festival. Tickets are full price. Was there a compelling reason for this shyness? The communications director explained that the show is still "in development." She did not say, but it is reasonable to assume, that the show's creators would like to avoid any adverse press sullying its name before they shop it around New York. But that has been a concern of many world-premiere musicals, including several at the 5th Avenue, in recent years. The only musical with a similar critical embargo I could think of was the disastrous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Stu for Silverton couldn't be that bad, could it?
So I declined to agree to anything and bought a ticket like everybody else.
After seeing it, Intiman's desire to keep the show in the quasi-dark makes sense—it's just not ready yet, like a fledgling that fell out of the nest too soon. But people deserve to know that before buying tickets, so here we are.
Stu Rasmussen is the real-life transgender mayor—and movie-theater proprietor—of a small Oregon town that made national news by drawing the ire of those evangelical, attention-lusting bigots in Fred Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church. In 2008, Westboro congregants traveled from Kansas to protest the election of America's first openly trans mayor, but the townspeople fought back. A broad coalition of Silverton residents staged an overwhelming counterprotest—media reports noted men wearing "skirts and boots"—and chased the evangelicals away.
Stu for Silverton spends its first act charting Rasmussen's transformation from a likable, small-town doormat (he generously fixes people's cars and microwaves but doesn't get invited to many parties) into an individual on a gender odyssey. The heteronormative scales fall from his eyes after attending a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Portland, where he realizes gender can be more complicated than he thought—and that's okay. That pivotal number, with its catchy chorus of "I felt I was alive for the first time at The Rocky Horror Picture Show," is one of Stu's strongest moments. The song's enthusiastic homage to Richard O'Brien's original Rocky Horror score sneaks in little jabs of Americana that feel both loving and satirical, like Randy Newman's masterfully anthropological (and critical) albums about the American South in the 1970s. Watching Rasmussen's thrill of sudden self-awareness also inspires a little envy: Why can't everyone have a similarly crystallizing moment when the meaning of our lives is revealed to us in song and dance?
But after that pleasurable jolt, Stu begins its long stumble to the curtain call, spending far too much time on its title character's growing consciousness (and breasts—the show's creators seem as transfixed by Rasmussen's tits as any gawking, small-town boys) and not enough on the world that surrounds him. The rest of Silverton is an inchoate mass that is uncomfortable with Rasmussen's outward transformation, sometimes violently, but not quite ready to chuck him out of town. He even gets elected mayor by a tiny margin on an anticorporate, pro-local platform.
But Stu's climax, when the haters from Westboro show up, is a mystery. The musical wants to turn Stu into a folk hero, but the real hero of its big moment is the folk—the people who put aside their differences and their transphobia to protect their native son. But why? Has Stu's transformation also transformed Silverton? Or is their counterprotest just an exercise in altruistic provincialism? It's an important question, one worthy of a musical, but Stu hasn't gotten its arms around that yet.
Stu still has its charms: Mark Anders plays Rasmussen with a combination of stubbornness and vulnerability that's rare in any actor and makes his character deeply endearing. Bobbi Kotula as Rasmussen's smart-mouthed, fearless girlfriend has the singing voice and vibrant stage personality to save even the most confused scenes from themselves. Adam Standley brings his meticulous physicality to Lovely Lady, one of the first openly trans people Rasmussen meets, who invites him to a weekly support-group meeting in Portland. And Charles Leggett toys with his role as the narrator, modulating the tired Our Town conceit with a knowingness that undermines it and keeps things fresh. But the overall structure, and some of the big numbers, are still a jumble.
Stu for Silverton might be worth seeing by the time it closes in September. But walk, don't run.