1812 Productions lights up the stage for ‘Torch Song’

Torch Song
Grace Gonglewski and Jamison Stern are pictured in ‘Torch Song.’
Mark Garvin

When the beloved dramedy ‘Torch Song opens May 1 at Plays & Players, the production reaches beyond laughs and into the poignancy of queer culture. 

The importance of playwright Harvey Fierstein’s ‘Torch Song’ — told from the perspective of Arnold, an NYC drag queen whose relationship with his mother has forever been stilted — isn’t just about ‘coming out.’ It’s about rooting through familial truths and loudly, proudly announcing who you are.

To do this, 1812 Productions Artistic Producing Director Jen Childs works with the company’s usual local greats (Grace Gonglewski, Karen Peakes) while going outside its circle to include Director Bill Fennelly and Broadway actor Jamison Stern as Arnold, the stage role originated by Fierstein. And surprisingly, one of Broadway’s most successful, Tony-winning plays — it was made into a film in 1988 — 1812’s staging represents the first locally-produced professional production of ‘Torch Song’.

Torch Song
Jamison Stern stars in ‘Torch Song.’Mark Garvin

Theater veterans Fennelly and Stern know the immensity of ‘Torch Song’, and what it means to the LGBTQIA+ community and beyond.

“It’s one of the most significant plays to me, a gay American, as it deals with an astonishing, alive time in queer – and this country’s – history,” said Fennelly. “Fierstein opens a window onto the late-70s-and-early-80s, post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS, when our community was arguing, cogently and coherently, for the legitimacy of gay sexual expression, partnership, marriage, child-rearing and gender identity. ‘Torch Song’ was unapologetic in looking, complexly, through a gay-and-queer lens and spoke to audiences from every background.”

‘Torch Song’, too, is an important play to return to in 2024, as the LGBTQIA+ community is experiencing anti-trans legislation and drag bans.

“To be able to honor that history, and give ‘Torch Song’ a fresh, exciting new production in 2024 is thrilling,” said Stern. “As an actor, there are few roles such as Arnold that can turn high comedy into high drama, often within one line of dialogue. Even after 40 years, every part of ‘Torch Song’ is relevant. And, unlike the mother-son relationship in ‘Torch Song’, I was able to be honest with my mom about my truth. My mom was always amazed that someone wouldn’t or couldn’t love their child exactly as they were.”

To that end, Fennelly calls Fierstein “an American Checkoff, a humanist who gets our flaws and fabulousness,” and ‘Torch Song’ a “complicated, messy and exquisite play.”

Torch Song
Karen Peakes is pictured in ‘Torch Song.’Mark Garvin

Fennelly became friendly with Jen Childs while working on last season’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ at People’s Light, where theater traditions of “the dame” (usually played by cis males) were moved forward to include drag artists living within the “Ru-Verse,” joked the director in consider of RuPaul.

“The artistry of drag became central,” said Fennelly. “Our Alice was a celebratory, controversial event.” 

Knowing that Fennelly was capable of electrifying cultural touchstones, Childs asked the director to work with 1812 on the rare find of ‘Torch Song’.

“I would’ve dropped anything to do Fierstein’s play,” he said. 

No sooner than Fennelly was asked to carry ‘Torch Song’, he asked Stern to read for Arnold.

“Jamison (Stern) has an appetite for precision with the language…. So when he signed off the Zoom, Jen turned and said, ‘We found our Arnold,” recalled Fennelly. “He gets to the heart of the most thrilling characters.”

Stern, for his part, was preparing to work for Childs in a version of the comic classic ‘Noises Off’ in Delaware, when he mentioned 1812 to his friend Fennelly.

“From that point, I begged to audition: Arnold is the role of a lifetime,” said Stern.

Knowing how iconic the role of Arnold is, and how definitive Fierstein’s flamboyant, gravelly-voiced performance in ‘Torch Song’ has been for 40+ years, the director and the actor, both, simply decided to do one thing—be themselves and be honest.

“You can’t play Harvey, so I came to the realization that you don’t even try – I’m living through my own experience, and just being me,” said Stern. “I’m acting as me in the situations that Arnold finds himself.”

“We wanted to honor the verisimilitude of that moment, the truth of the end of the 1970s, yet have the production of it feel immediate – very 2024,” said Fennelly of a ‘Torch Song’s three act staging.

The second act particularly, done on a “bed-slash-playground-slash-battlefield” is a “sexy striptease” moving at a rapid-fire pace with its third act rolling along like a hyper-realistic 70s sitcom.

“There’s an energy musically and visually across the decades,” said the director of the celebratory ‘Torch Song’. “It’s a drag queen fever dream.”

‘Torch Song’ runs May 1 to 19 at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Street. For tickets and information, visit 1812productions.org/torch-song.