Dorian Corey defined individuality in life and, for better or worse, in death.
The drag artist — the subject of the new musical "Dorian's Closet," enjoying a vibrant premiere at Rep Stage — won many trophies as a star of the extravagant ball culture in New York. She gained extra attention for her appearance in the acclaimed 1990 documentary "Paris Is Burning."
But Corey also generated headlines when a mummified corpse was discovered among her things after her HIV-related death in 1993. The body of a man from Corey's past had been stored away for at least 15 years. How and why it happened remain unknown.
There is more than enough material here to make a stage vehicle, and "Dorian's Closet" gives it an engrossing spin. With book and lyrics by Los Angeles-based Richard Mailman and music by Baltimore composer Ryan Haase, the piece could use fine-tuning, but reveals plenty of promise.
The musical posits a plausible explanation for the case of the closeted corpse, tying together various issues touched upon in the plot. But this is mostly a story about the search for respect, tolerance, a little leeway in life — and, above all, getting the chance to be fabulous. The result is a mix of fantasy and camp, glitter and heartache.
Mailman reveals particular flair for capturing the stitch-and-bitch milieu of competitive drag performers, spicing the dialogue with kitty-has-claws one-liners that would fit right into an episode of the TV reality show "RuPaul's Drag Race."
There's a particularly painful/funny observation about God dishing out punishment, and a hilarious usage of "monologue" as a verb (I can't wait for an opportunity to steal that one).
The show might be stronger with fewer songs, fewer scenes, and if it didn't take so many side trips into cliche city. ("True friends are hard to come by" is a sample from the dialogue; some of the lyrics likewise take banal turns.)
For the most part, Haase's score clicks neatly. The composer overuses the well-worn device of a descending bass line, and sometimes packs too many words into a melodic line, but there's an appealing directness about the songs. Apparent nods to vintage musicals — a hint of "A Chorus Line" here, "Cabaret" there — and to Motown add extra flavor along the way. Same for his cool application of Latin beats.
The strengths in "Dorian's Closet" are underlined by the stage direction by Joseph Ritsch, who assures a quick flow and draws a generally polished response from the cast.
Stephen Scott Wormley does impressive work as Dorian, conveying the toughened, protective exterior as tellingly as the needs and disappointments inside.
Wormley's singing also hits the spot, with a solid tone and finely sculpted phrasing. This is especially so in "Something About You," a fine romantic duet for Dorian and Robert, the man who will betray him. Jay Adriel sings stylishly as Robert, but his stiff acting keeps the character from registering fully.
There are snappy performances from Dorian's fellow female impersonators. As Pepper, Dwayne Washington nearly walks off with the production; I haven't heard someone serve up repartee that saucily since Pearl Bailey. Washington has the nuance for the role's tender side, too.
With his sizable, expressive voice and unfussy acting, Tiziano D'Affuso leaves a mark as the vulnerable Angel. Admirable contributions also come from James Thomas Frisby as helpful Jesse; Ian Anthony Coleman, as icy Amazing Grace; and Richard Westerkamp, a hoot as manic Monica. Keith Richards handles multiple assignments ably.
The score is well served by a five-piece band, led by musical director and orchestrator Stacey Antoine.
Scenic designer Daniel Ettinger balances glitz and grit expertly; the pile of doors that frame the stage become delightful comic props in the show's most infectious production number "Pay the Tab." Sarah Cubbage's costumes pop brightly throughout; Dorian would surely have coveted several of them.
"Dorian's Closet" runs through May 14 at Rep Stage, Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $15 to $40. Call 443-518-1500, or go to repstage.org.