A theatrical adaptation by Donnie (Donald Horn) of his painstakingly researched book Mr. Madam: The Life and Times of Kenneth/Kate Marlowe, the New York premiere of Make Me Gorgeous! – presented by triangle productions!, staged in the format of a first-person direct-address memoir of the LGBTQ trailblazer (1926-90), and starring Wade McCollum, who contributed additional material – opened to the acclaim of critics and audiences alike at Playhouse 46 in November 2023. Beginning this month, Darius Rose (also known to fans everywhere as Jackie Cox, a finalist in season 12 of RuPaul’s Drag Race) has taken over the role for the remainder of the show’s extended run. It’s a sensational solo performance in a stellar Off-Broadway debut that is engaging, entertaining, and empathetic, thoroughly irresistible, and worthy of countless more exclamation points!
Set in Marlowe’s San Francisco apartment in 1975, the memory play recounts and reenacts the defining points in the development of the real-life character, beginning with a childhood in Iowa of wearing dresses provided by an alcoholic mother who was expecting a girl, up to the sex reassignment surgery (inspired by the news of American transgender advocate and celebrity Christine Jorgensen, also born in 1926) that resulted in Marlowe’s change of name and identity from Kenneth to Kate.
It’s all told and enacted by Rose, who, under Donnie’s fluid and engrossing direction, portrays not only Marlowe at different ages, in different places, and in many different situations throughout the years – as a hustler, female impersonator, call boy, madam of a gay prostitution ring in Hollywood, churchgoing Christian, Army private, hairdresser (to Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball, Gypsy Rose Lee, and other stars), and author (encouraged by a now-sober Mom to use writing as a release, which culminated in eight published books), but also amusingly mimics a roster of others – family members, schoolmates, sugar daddy, friends, associates, and antagonists – each given a readily distinguishable speech pattern and demeanor.
Throughout the captivating show, the mood is largely upbeat and positive, filled with risqué humor, sexual innuendo, and Marlowe’s obvious enjoyment of sex, gender fluidity, performing, and chosen professions. Rose captures the character – who’s been described as “one of mid-century America’s gayest and most openly homosexual personalities” – to perfection, bringing an acclaimed background in theater, drag, and cabaret to the very personal and revealing portrayal, singing, performing strip-tease and fan dancing routines, effortlessly changing costumes and applying make-up, false eyelashes, and wigs on stage, actively moving, and assuredly working the house with direct eye contact and up-close interactions with the audience.
Of course, we know that Marlowe lived through a much less enlightened and unaccepting time of widespread homophobia supported by the discriminatory laws of our country, so there are also a few dark scenes, the most horrific of which occurs in the Army, with Rose convincingly registering the profound terror and physical pain of a hateful and violent experience there.
The top-notch performance is supported by a first-rate artistic design, with lighting by Jamie Roderick and sound by Ien DeNio that enhance the moods and circumstances. Walt Spangler’s interior set, with a make-up table, wooden folding screen, drapes, wardrobe, upholstered seats, table lamps, apropos statuary, and a central peacock chair and desk – including multiple vintage rotary phones (props by Brendan McCann) – is done in a delicate palette of pink, blue, and white that defines the taste and furnishings of the period and references the traditional gender-based colors (pink is for girls, blue is for boys), as well as Rose’s opening song “”We Can Be” (“. . . boys; we can be girls”). But the scenic design is not limited to the stage; the main audience area has been reconfigured as a nightclub, with cabaret tables and chairs that set the locales of the re-enacted shows Marlowe performed.
And of paramount importance to the theme is the spectacular array of costumes by Jeffrey Hinshaw, from the skirt the young Marlowe sewed together from a collection of dirty cloth table napkins to the tellingly placed handkerchiefs used as signals in the gay community to the sparkling sequins, breakaway stripper wear, and feathered fans and pasties worn in the performer’s dazzling song and dance acts.
Kudos to Donnie, Rose, and the entire team of Make Me Gorgeous! for bringing Marlowe’s pioneering life and era of gay history into the spotlight. I was also delighted that the show’s exit music was a recording of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” an acknowledgment of Andy Warhol’s key role in featuring gay and drag artists in his iconic work as a significant part of American Pop culture and making Superstars of such fabulous talents as Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and Jackie Curtis, for whom Marlowe helped pave the way.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
Make Me Gorgeous! plays through Sunday, March 24, 2024, at Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s, 308 West 46th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $39-129, plus fees; the $129 VIP package includes premium table seating, two free drinks, and an exclusive merchandise item), go online.