Monahan and Alexander Sage Oyen’s outrageous one-man show, starring Luke Bayer, is one hell of a good time
Desmond Channing has it all: after all, he is Ronald Reagan High School’s Drama Club President (and don’t you forget it). Were you to believe him, the spotlight has never strayed far from his perfectly coiffed hair and he has played the starring role in every production, thanks to his wonderful (read: sycophantic) relationship with Mr Dallas, including – somewhat controversially – Wang Chi-yang in Flower Drum Song1. That is, until his lofty perch comes under threat from interloper New York Drama School transfer student Evan Harris, which sends Desmond on a calamitous downward spiral to rock bottom.
Channing (played here, as every character is, by the infinitely captivating Luke Bayer) now finds himself stuck in eternal torment, forced to constantly regale his sorry descent to the Seventh Circle’s cabaret audience members.
DIVA: Live from Hell‘s European premiere following its 2017 New York debut has not exactly been plain sailing, with Joe McNeice‘s original planned production starring Jak Malone awkwardly aligning itself with the lockdown of theatres in 2020, but it has been more than worth the wait. The book, by Nora Brigid Monahan, is witty and uproarious, while the songs by Alexander Sage Oyen are reliably catchy.
The material itself is strong and a terrific basis for the production, but a one-man show lives or dies on the talent of its central star. Fortunately, Bayer is more than up for the challenge. For those familiar with his previous work, Bayer‘s incredible voice will come as no surprise, soaring through songs with seeming ease and riffing as naturally as breathing. While this is phenomenal in itself, what is truly exceptional is the way that Bayer inhabits not only the central role of Desmond Channing, but also every role simply through the way that he uses his body and voice. In addition to camping it up as Desmond, Bayer finds tremendous charm and vulnerability in Allie Hewitt, Desmond’s desperately beleaguered best friend, laid back bro Evan Harris and steadfastly patient and fair Mr. Dallas.
Bayer is clearly having a hell of a time playing Desmond and letting loose in a way that most can only ever dream of. Though it might be impossible to make Desmond likeable, especially once his grasp on reality thoroughly slips away, Bayer manages to make the neurotic, highly strung, tempestuous, headstrong and ruthlessly determined Ms Channing incredibly captivating. Not only is this used to comic effect, but Desmond’s descent into full-blown insanity is chillingly achieved and never once feels forced. Make no mistake, Bayer is leaving no holds barred and it is a true masterpiece of a performance on offer here.
For those worried that watching just one person on stage for 75 minutes may prove tiring, that is proved ardently false here. In fact, it could easily be longer. Bayer‘s seeming ease is complimented by the rapport that he has with the band, headed by Debbi Clarke (Musical Director & Keys) with Jonnie Grant (Drums) and Ben Uden (Guitar & Bass), and stage management as he snaps demands at them throughout the performance. So convincing is Bayer‘s Channing persona and how perfect his comic timing is, in fact, that it is near-impossible to tell how many of the lines were actually written and which were improvised.
The combination of Bayer‘s talent and the giddily heightened drama of the original play makes for an outrageously hilarious evening. Expect plenty of clutching at invisible pearls in sheer outrage as one watches a gloriously intense, barely justified quest for ultimate revenge that makes Les Miserables look like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
DIVA: Live From Hell! runs at the Turbine Theatre until 3 September 2022. Tickets can be booked here.
1For the non-musical theatre aficionados, the programme has you covered: Flower Drum Song is a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical which, as I am sure you have ascertained from the character’s name, is not appropriate for a white man to play. It is not well known for a reason.