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What if you discover one day that the gender you've been wearing all your life doesn't fit anymore? What do you do, especially if you're in a culture that restricts you like a corset?
That's the dilemma that faces Mary Jane MJ to her husband and best friend, Brenda in Plan-B Theatre Company's production of Jenifer Nii and David Evanoff's brand-new musical, "Kingdom of Heaven."
Mormon housewife MJ's life has always been "an abundance of nice," she sings in the show's opening, title number. "Our lives are so neatly structured" that there's "no time to think twice or roll the dice."
When her friend Liz offers an opportunity to be the opening act for a musical group of drag kings coming to town, she comes face to face with "a me I didn't know was still there."
Once "Kingdom of Heaven" gets rolling, it asks intriguing questions about image and identity like, "What should I do when I look in the mirror and don't see me?"
The problem is that MJ's transformation comes out of nowhere. The play's opening songs, especially "I Love You the Way You Are," which she shares with her husband, Joe, don't reveal any deep dissatisfaction with her life; when she shows up at Joe's award dinner sporting closely cropped hair and a stylish, but very masculine, black suit, we are as shocked as he is, although not nearly as angry. Equally surprising is that she picks an occasion so important to someone she loves to unveil her new persona.
Nii's book needs fleshing out to make such inconsistencies make sense. The first few scenes are short and choppy basically just isolated songs and the play acquires depth and rhythm only after MJ's decision. There are some good songs: In "The Prayer," MJ, Joe and Brenda's voices blend and counterpoint as they sing in separate spotlights, and MJ's closing number powerfully overturns and transforms the lyrics of the opening "Kingdom of Heaven" as she sings, "We can be what we choose," and brings the show full circle. Evanoff's impeccable musical orchestrations give the songs fullness and variety.
Vibrant, perceptive performances and Jerry Rapier's tight, yet fluid, direction compensate for the play's limitations. Susanna Florence is sensible and supportive as Brenda, who has her own issues to battle, and Dave Hanson's Joe vacillates movingly between anger and confusion, love and a sense of betrayal as he watches his marriage fall apart and his wife become a stranger. But Jeanette Puhich's MJ is the heart and the head of the show. She unfailingly pulls us into her struggles as she tries to define a new life for herself.
Thomas George's warm wooden set and Jesse Portillo's lighting design, with its soft light filtering through the blinds and multicolored spots, exude a feeling of home. Phillip Lowe's comfortable costumes capture culture in transition.
"Kingdom of Heaven" is a work in progress, but it captures the conflict and confusion of confronting difficult and unpopular truths about our lives. It's up to each one of us to shape our unique kingdom of heaven on Earth.
'Kingdom of Heaven'
Fully fleshed-out performances and tight direction compensate for the inconsistencies in Jenifer Nii and David Evanoff's new musical.
When • Reviewed on March 31; plays Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. through April 10.
Where • Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20, $10 for students; 801-355-ARTS or planbtheatre.org
Running time • 75 minutes (no intermission)
Wait list • For sold-out performances, a prepaid wait list forms in the box office one hour before the show. Those on the wait list will be seated in any available seats at show time. Those who cannot be seated will receive a full refund.