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Renouncing an idol

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review 

Is anything more depressing than having your idol revealed to be a hateful crusader against everything you are?

In the world premiere of Gordon Leary and Julia Meinwald’s musical “The Loneliest Girl in the World,” Tommy — a gay fan of Anita Bryant — has a difficult time renouncing Anita even as he watches her transformation from second runner-up in Miss America 1959 to pop recording star to purveyor of orange juice — and finally into a virulent anti-gay crusader peddling the nonsense that since gays cannot biologically reproduce, “they must recruit our children.”

Anita Bryant (Allison Spratt Pearce) is ready for her close-up (Photo courtesy of Simpatika)

“The Loneliest Girl in the World” has just been extended through July 1 at Diversionary Theatre, where it’s well directed by Diversionary’s Artistic Director Matt M. Morrow.

Anita Bryant (the formidable Allison Spratt Pearce) isn’t one for small moves. She calls herself “The Loneliest Girl in the World” and wants to be noticed. She thought the Miss America crown would be her springboard to fame. But when she lost, it was back to the drawing board. Meeting Miami DJ Bob Green (Steve Gouveia) and marrying him in 1960 was her entree to recording fame, illustrated in her song “Make Me a Star.”

Tommy (Sam Heldt), a young closeted gay with his own identity issues, fell in love with the recording star Anita, but he also identified with her outsider status. “You didn’t look like you belonged, and that’s why I loved you from the start,” he says.

But when Tommy dons an apron and lipstick to watch Anita on TV, his horrified mother (Marci Anne Wuebben) orders him to take them off “before your father gets home!”

Tommy (Sam Heldt) idolizes Anita (Photo courtesy of Simpatika)

Tommy continues to follow Anita’s recording career and begins frequenting a record shop, looking for Anita’s latest album. There, he meets future life partner Kyle (Shaun Tuazon), who doesn’t understand Tommy’s interest in Anita. But their “Twin Bed” duet is a charmer.

Anita is spurred on — “haunted” might be a better word — by occasional vignettes of Mary Ann Mobley (the delightful Lauren King Thompson), who took the Miss America crown from her. Mobley shows up to rub salt in the wound by announcing the film and TV shows she’s in, while Anita makes Holiday Inn and orange juice commercials.

Anita hits her stride when she goes back to her fundamentalist roots and begins an anti-gay campaign, “Save Our Children,” that would have far-reaching effects … until it didn’t anymore.

Pearce, one of the finest singers around, shows again — with a nuanced performance, powerful vocals and mastery of this difficult music — why she is in such demand on the musical stage.

“Loneliest Girl” takes place on Robin Sanford Roberts’ garish green and orange set reminiscent of “Romper Room,” with six squarish holes for such things as TV screens, faces to appear, an oven door, etc. There are more than 20 small, white light bulbs and two curtained exits.

The four-man band on stage right cranks out plenty of sound — too much on opening night, in fact, for the unfamiliar songs whose clever lyrics we wanted to hear.

Heldt’s Tommy is an engaging character with a lovely voice, especially on “Sing Me the Songs.” He and Shaun Tuazon’s Kyle make a good counterpoint for each other; Tuazon shows his versatility in a variety of other roles as well.

Anita Bryant dropped out of the public eye shortly after she campaigned for California’s Briggs amendment in 1978, which would have made pro-gay statements regarding homosexual people or homosexuality by any public school employee cause for dismissal. It went down to massive defeat at the polls.

But give her anti-gay campaign credit for helping to launch the gay rights movement that continues to this day.

— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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