Review by Sam Waite
With online dating having moved rapidly from a niche, oft-ridiculed pursuit to one of our default forms of connection, so to have a handful of apps taken over our collective consciousness. While Tinder and Plenty of Fish have served straight people well enough, the queer community have turned to the likes of Scruff and Her for their intimate connections – and it is from the rise of such services that Grindr: The Opera, playing at London’s Union Theatre, takes its inspiration.
Named for the famed (notorious, perhaps) app, Grindr: The Opera is not, to be pedantic, an opera - it's sung-through, but the distinctions between musicals and operas are much more nuanced (and confusing) than that. The plot concerns the romance between Devon (Santino Zapico) and Tom (Billy J Vale), as well as their connections to young Jack (James Lowrie) and middle-aged Don Derek Walker). Overseeing their dalliances and desires is Christian Lunn as Grindr – an ancient entity awoken by technology which feeds on the lust of men.
Funny moments litter the sung-through script, with (purposefully) groan-inducing quips about “daddies” and “bears” and requesting of a match, “just don’t be fat.” The more familiar you are with gay online culture (or the more Drag Race you’ve watched) the more these lines will land with you. Themes are definitely not handled with much delicacy here, this being the kind of comedic takedown that straddles smart satire and bawdy parody, and your enjoyment will depend on how big of an ick some of them give you.
Lunn is spellbinding in the titular role, the ancient being known only as Grindr. His voice soars to impressive heights without sacrificing strength and resonance in his lower range, and he brings a commanding presence to his appearances on stage. Flanked by two skilful, menacing henchmen (James Aymon and Grant Jackson), Lunn takes over the stage whenever he enters a scene, and leaves with such a flourish that he is hard to forget.
Dereck Walker, as “straight” Tory councillor Don, may be too believable in his portrayal. With his storyline involving a sizeable (“I have a son not much older than you”) age gap, solicitation, and what may be construed as an assault, a moment where we seem to be asked to feel sympathy for his long-closeted life feels uncomfortable. His sharp demeanour and withering looks work beautifully to aid the arcs of others, but unfortunately a too-serious tone in his act one scenes left a bitter taste in my mouth.
As Jack, James Lowrie is tasked with one of the first scenes of genuine emotion in this largely satirical piece. He handles the moment with tenderness and understanding for what Jack, barely 18, would be feeling as a result of his unsavoury experience. When called on to deliver a rousing act 2 number, his sincerity and acting abilities go a long way, despite some less steady vocals.
Devon seems at first to be the main character of the quartet, and Santino Zapico is more than up to leading the production. Introduced with his desperate longing for a new connection before delivering stellar comedic work with his facial expressions as the others rattle off their less-than-PG bios, Zapico establishes himself as a likeable hero. Essential for the rest of the storyline to come together, his chemistry with Billy J Vale is also believable and authentic - it's easy to believe they're falling for each other, and just as easy to understand their eventual frustrations.
For his part, Vale makes for a charming love interest, though the role is admittedly a touch one-note at times. He's all smiles, patience and understanding, with Vale bringing some much-needed depth to the role in an eventual confrontation with Devon and an explosive dinner bringing together all four lead actors. Vale and Zapico also sing well, bringing a sweetness to their courtship and sense of real passion to their early encounters.
Book, music, and lyrics are all provided here by Erik Ransom – his early numbers, such as “Manhunt”, an ode to early hookup sites, sparkle with clever moments and Lunn’s numbers are suitably dramatic and enthralling. After a comedic introduction for Jack (“C** Dumpster”) many of the other songs proved less memorable, better at moving the story forward than entertaining in their own regard. The songs are good fun while they’re happening, but unfortunately few of them proved to be all that memorable.
William Spencer’s direction and choreography keep the show moving at a brisk pace, never bogging the piece down with unnecessary flourishes or showmanship. No doubt aware of their more intimate venue’s limitations, Spencer has his dance routines double as stage dressing and resetting, and makes particularly good use of James Aymon and Grant Jackson’s dance abilities. He also keeps the performances well balanced in the second act, where the story has nearly half the time to unpack what feels like significantly more conflict, keeping the established pace while still giving Random’s storytelling room to breathe.
The stage design, by David Shields, invokes the grandiosity of classic opera with a church-like backdrop, and frames the leading men in doorways which double as implied phone screens. This set is attractive and well-utilised, but the video screens at the back of the stage felt like an afterthought – with no credited video designer, these essentially displayed a handful of animated screensavers. Not a detriment by any means but bringing nothing additional to the production, one issue with the use of the screens was the clearly visible cursor remaining on screen whenever they were not in use.
Ballsy (in more ways than one), brazen, and brimming with charm, Grindr: The Opera is a fun night out at the theatre and a bold display of just how gay a musical can be. While far from a perfect show, this is still something many will quote and share songs from for years to come, and ultimately this small, specifically-targeted show may benefit more from maintaining the kind of cult following this will likely bring.
Grindr: The Opera plays at the Union Theatre until July 8th.
For tickets and information visit http://uniontheatre.biz/show/grindr-the-opera/
Photos by Brittain Photography