Early in Darcelle: That's No Lady, a drag queen named Tina (Jeff George) persuades Walter (Kevin C. Loomis) to don a dress and lip-sync to Barbra Streisand's "People." It's a hesitant performance—Walter mouths the lyrics without truly becoming Babs. Yet in that moment, you feel his spirit begin to expand as he takes an awkward but pivotal first step toward becoming the world's oldest performing drag queen, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
If you haven't guessed, Walter is Walter Cole, better known as Darcelle, star of the legendary Old Town drag bar Darcelle XV Showplace. That's No Lady is a musical odyssey through Cole's life—an ambitious mashup of biography and backstage drama with lyrics and book by Donald Horn. While the play sidelines some of its subject's most fascinating experiences, that doesn't diminish the power of Loomis' soulful charisma and Horn's impassioned storytelling, which leave cheers, laughs and sobs in their formidable wake.
That's No Lady beckons us back to the time when Cole ran a bar called Demas Tavern (which he purchased in 1967). The business gets a makeover after Walter meets Tina and falls in love with Roxy (James Sharinghousen), a dancer at the now-shuttered Hoyt Hotel. Armed with oceans of makeup, magnificently gaudy costumes and some very floppy phalluses, the trio transforms Demas into Darcelle's, a glitzy haven where female impersonators perform everything from the Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" to "Cell Block Tango" from Chicago.
Just as the play's soundtrack includes both old and original songs (there's music and additional lyrics by Darcelle collaborators like Storm Large and Marv and Rindy Ross), the script is a house divided. That's No Lady is similar to a superhero origin tale—the scene in which Roxy suggests the name Darcelle has a mythic quality—but it's also hauntingly intimate. Walter spends much of the play directly addressing the audience, delving into everything from the ecstatic liberation of becoming Darcelle to the rage and pain he feels after the death of his abusive father.
As you watch That's No Lady, you may find yourself wondering why Cole's wife, Jeannette Rosini, is mentioned only briefly, or why the fact that Cole's son has worked at Darcelle's for over 30 years never comes up. As delightful as the production is, it would have been more compelling if it looked beyond Walter, Roxy, Tina and Mitchell (Chris Bartell), the team's ever-harried sidekick.
Yet the longer the play goes on, the more daring and heartfelt it becomes. Director Brandon Woolley lavishes plenty of attention on the musical numbers, but he keeps them in balance with Loomis' performance, which beautifully communicates the fullness of Walter's life, tragedies included. When Walter relives the trauma of his mother's death, Loomis unleashes a childlike wail of disbelief ("Mommies don't die!") in a moment of chilling regression that underscores the play's mission: to re-create Walter/Darcelle's journey with affection and honesty in equal measure.
If That's No Lady's currents of anguish cut deep, they also make its scenes of transcendence more satisfying. When Darcelle emerges in a streaming dress and a Marie Antoinette-worthy wig to sing Stephen Sondheim's "Send In the Clowns" late in the play, she is the resplendent image of a woman revitalized. The person who once nervously sang Streisand has grown up, and the power of the play is that it invites you to share in that evolution—to share in the joy of somebody who has discovered their truest self.
The real Walter Cole is nearly 89, and accordingly, That's No Lady refuses to turn away from the realities of growing old—especially during the show's best original song, "Every Show Is a Love Song," when Walter's voice breaks under the weight of all the people he has lost. But he summons the strength of his vocal cords and continues on, reminding us once and for all that Darcelle lives.
SEE IT: Darcelle: That's No Lady is at Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave., trianglepro.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 3-5. Sold out.