There are so many images of salvation in art that we forget just how difficult they are to achieve—as if giving meaning to suffering could ever be easy. Catching the moment when pain turns transcendent and worthy of an audience—worthy of witnesses—is a strange alchemy.
Mighty Real, a sly and affecting jukebox musical about the androgynous, falsetto voiced disco crooner Sylvester, does just that. With the lightest of touches, the musical leads you into a world of casual cruelties and then shows you a way out, or at least one of which Sylvester might have imagined and approved.
Anthony Wayne’s book and Kendrell Bowman’s direction are a bit underdeveloped at times. But the whole of the experience is powerful and kind of amazing in its way. And what’s there is fully present and alive: Sylvester’s music, a whip sharp five-piece band, backup singers with monster voices, and the tawdry glamour of disco.
Right from the beginning, the show joyously taunts death. Sylvester’s disembodied voice announces that he died too soon, that “life is for the living," and that he wishes for one more night “to shine under that great disco ball, one more moment to light up the night and set this world on fire!” And then he’s there, center stage, cat-quick in sparkles and fur. And you feel as if it happened: Sylvester has risen, alive and resplendent.
Like the New Testament and the lives of saints, Mighty Real chronicles an exceptional man’s life and death, and then somehow seeks to find inspiration and solace from both. Its melding of concert and biography takes the star's hits and turns them into a set of propositions about the world—a philosophy of love and care that’s shocking in its ability to brush aside the most savage betrayals.
When an elder member of the Pentecostal Church Sylvester's family treated as a second home seduces him, Sylvester celebrates the encounter as an ecstatic sexual awakening. As he recounts it, a bass guitar thumping in the background, you can’t believe that someone could feel in quite this way. To then hear “I Need You” and “Do You Want to Funk” is to feel that you missed something crucial in Sylvester’s performance of these songs. Not a hidden biography, but rather a philosophy of being capable of seeing goodness everywhere, even in his own sexual molestation.
It’s not the only moment where Sylvester eschews anger and outrage for love and joy. Even the clichéd tropes of show business are paths to enlightenment. When his backup singers, Martha and Izora, leave him, all three of them sing “A Song for You” with the haunting, almost paradoxical refrain, “we were alone and I’m singing this song for you.” Wayne, Anastacia McCleskey, and Jacqueline B. Arnold perform the number with a grace that suggests they are not only recognizing the inevitability of parting, but also its refutation in art. As with much of Mighty Real, even a standard bit of show biz fodder shimmers between reality and myth, and it takes you aback.
You realize that Wayne and Bowman understand the pleasures of the jukebox musical, and are deploying them in ambitious and daring ways. When the show kicks into high gear and takes on the wild energy of a concert, the music stops and the AIDS stories begin—Sylvester’s lovers, friends, those he nursed, and eventually his own diagnosis and death. And then the concert begins again. But we’ve been marked, and it changes how we listen to the music. The vaulting and excessive energy of disco, the way the music seems devoid of irony, takes on a touching heroism here—a belief that the world can and should be fabulous, even in the face of imminent death.
None of this would work, though, without Wayne’s magnificent performance in the title role. It's not a canny imitation of the pop star, but instead a full embrace of what it must have felt like to be Sylvester, a kind of bearing of the cross. So that when he tells us of his death—dressed in a silk feather duster, as if an angel descended from heaven—we feel both a loss and a way forward.
And so in the last two burn-the-house-down numbers—“Dance (Disco Heat)” and “Mighty Real”—we get something close to instructions. First, we must dance. But then as the dead and ascending Sylvester sings the title song, it all becomes dazzlingly clear. Only in our presence can the singer be “mighty real.” Dead or alive, the spirit of Sylvester has always resided in those who listened and heard everything that his music had to offer.
Mighty Real, A Fabulous Sylvester Musical runs through March 13 at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco. For tickets and information go to www.brava.org.