Review: A drag queen is born: ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ arrives at the Ahmanson

A man stands under a spotlight with his hands raised.
Layton Williams stars in “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” at the Ahmanson Theatre.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Even for a theater critic, the decision to see “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” the West End musical hit that opened Friday at the Ahmanson Theatre, wasn’t an easy one.

On the one hand, who at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t fed up with living in suspended animation? On the other, the headlines about the explosive Omicron surge paint a stark picture of a more transmissible variant overwhelming already stressed hospitals.

I went with trepidation. My fear wasn’t so much about my own health. I wore a good quality mask, didn’t socialize before or after the performance and took some comfort in being boosted.

What troubled me was the societal impact of attending theater in a viral hurricane. If it were up to me, venues would take a brief Omicron pause until the surge subsides in our area. I wouldn’t encourage my loved ones to see a show right now. How could I write a review that might spur my readers to do something that could potentially inflict harm on themselves or someone around them?

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Before the show, I reached out to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which directed me to its website for official guidance. When I followed up to ask about the advisability of attending a performance at a large indoor venue during the current surge, I was met with radio silence.

Caught between an epidemiological rock and an economic hard place, the authorities are leaving these choices in individual hands. Science and our own inexpert judgment are all we have to rely on as we navigate what I hope will be the final chapter of this long ordeal.

It’s a pity that “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” an exceptionally sweet-natured show, couldn’t have hit Los Angeles at a more welcoming moment. The genial musical wears its heart on its sleeve, and though it’s formulaic and sentimental, the force of goodwill coming from the stage is hard to resist.

 A person in a sparkly suit performs a number in “Everybody's Talking About Jamie.”
Hugh, a.k.a. Loco Chanelle, has pizzazz in “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” at the Ahmanson Theatre.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Three people perform on a stage.
Jamie (Layton Williams), left, performs for his friend (Shobna Gulati) and his mother (Melissa Jacques).
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The show was inspired by the British television documentary “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16,” which chronicles a teenage boy’s determination to wear a dress to his prom despite the resistance he faced from school administration and the local community. Jonathan Butterell, the show’s director, turned the story into a musical with authors Dan Gillespie Sells (music and orchestration) and Tom MacRae (book and lyrics).

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The production, which began in 2016 at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England, before moving to London’s West End, is receiving its North American premiere at the Ahmanson. Broadway is likely punched into its GPS, but the route so far has been circuitous. A global tour that has so far included Japan and Korea and a movie adaptation (streaming on Amazon Prime) have preceded this American landing.

If the premise seems like a close cousin of “The Prom,” which reached Broadway in 2018 (after a 2016 premiere in Atlanta), the shows move to different rhythms. “The Prom” has more traditional musical comedy DNA. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” more pop-based and video-infused, seems geared toward jumpier attention spans.

Reviews have been strong, but the show is more of a commercial triumph than an artistic one. Agreeably effective rather than original, the musical has a generic score (think gay bar mixtape, sprinkled with a few ballads) that lays down an infectious groove without too much concern for lyrical precision. No matter: Familiarity breeds content in a theater audience eager to sway and shed a tear or two.

Set in Sheffield, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is loosely constructed as a set of musical scenes, in which obstacles to Jamie’s inevitable happy ending arise and fall away. The show sticks to the surface, not wishing to delve too deeply into Jamie’s psychological and social turmoil. The brutality that is routine in the lives of LGBTQ+ youth might prove too disturbing to a musical theater audience looking for an evening’s diversion. The violence is limited, and the risk of suicide for boys like Jamie (although hinted at in the song “Ugly in This Ugly World”) is left for a more realistic offering.

Layton Williams (who replaced John McCrea, the musical’s original star, in the West End) reprises his fawn-like performance as Jamie with a breathy intensity and a sashay flair. The sympathetic figure he cuts in his school uniform doesn’t depend on his acting. Williams can look forlorn or super-fabulous, but he seems a bit lost when something more dramatically complex is required of him. Still, it’s impossible not to root for his character.

Jamie is supported by Margaret (a top-notch Melissa Jacques), his economically struggling single mother, who sacrifices all she can to compensate for the boy’s absent father (Cameron Johnson). Margaret doesn’t want Jamie to know that his dad rejects him, but her coverup has its own unfortunate consequences.

Ray (Shobna Gulati), Margaret’s staunch friend, is usually around to buck up morale with a naughty wisecrack, some discount candy and a heartfelt word of encouragement. At Jamie’s birthday party, she cheers him on as he gingerly takes a few steps in the pair of killer red pumps his mother has bought for him. The affectionate, open-minded nature of this nontraditional domestic scene may be the musical’s warmest touch.

A drag queen performs onstage.
Hugo, a.k.a. Loco Chanelle (Roy Haylock), performs.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
A man performs on a dark stage in a blue blazer.
Jamie (Layton Williams) just wants to wear a dress to prom.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Hugo, the proprietor of Victor’s Secret, a drag clothing store, becomes another crucial ally. Hugo’s drag moniker is Loco Chanelle, and the role is played by a performer who also comes with two names, Roy Haylock, better known to fans of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” by his stage name, Bianca Del Rio.

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A kindly mentor, Hugo ensures that Jamie is properly kitted out. But he’s just as concerned with the boy’s drag persona, a chosen identity requiring defiant imagination and grit. In the number “The Legend of Loco Chanelle,” this drag veteran, backed by fellow drag queens, demonstrates to a young acolyte just how an origin story is concocted. (Kate Prince’s frolicsome choreography allows the camp to saunter in the spotlight.)

Jamie can always count on his best friend, Pritti (Hiba Elchikhe, refreshingly sincere), a studious hijab-wearing Muslim girl who also feels like an outcast at their working class school. When she expresses confusion about the meaning of his new high heels, Jamie clarifies that he doesn’t want to be a girl but that he would like to be accepted as a boy “who sometimes wants to be a girl.”

“I want to be a drag queen,” he explains. “For a job. You can do that, you know, make some money. Just not in Sheffield, can you imagine.”

But as Hugo later teaches him, drag is more than a show. It’s a form of empowerment. “Drag queens should be warriors,” he declares. “Performance is a battle. Makeup is armor….A boy in a dress is something to be laughed at — a drag queen is something to be feared.”

The enemies lined up against Jamie include a fellow student named Dean Paxton (George Sampson), whose homophobic taunts betray a deep masculine insecurity. Jamie’s father deals the most devastating blow when he tells Jamie that he disgusts him. And then there’s Miss Hedge (Gillian Ford), Jamie’s well-intentioned but skittish teacher, who after a complaint from a parent, informs Jamie that he cannot go to prom dressed as a girl, no matter how glamorous.

Margaret, who wishes for Jamie the dazzling life she could never imagine for herself, takes on her son’s problems as though they were her own. During a momentary mother-son crisis, she gives vent to her feelings in the showstopper “He’s My Boy.” The lyrics are soppy, but Jacques delivers the maternal sentiment with a thunderous passion worthy of Jennifer Holliday.

“The Wall in My Head,” Jamie’s cry of the alienated heart, serves nearly the same function in “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” as “Waving Through the Window” does in “Dear Evan Hansen.” Except that the words aren’t as piercing and the inner life of the character seems a bit more pat.

The production is overlong, with a series of endings that are a drag in both senses of the word. In no universe should this show take nearly three hours, but particularly not in one in which theatergoers are breathing behind protective face masks. (Incidentally, a few COVID-19 jokes and allusions are perfunctorily included, though the musical is largely set in a pandemic-free realm.)

The design scheme of the production can be summed up as fluorescent drear, presumably to convey the grimness of Jamie’s school. Video projections that sometimes seem like a playful version of FaceTime enliven the visual tedium, but I felt a great sense of relief every time we returned to Margaret’s bright yellow kitchen.

I can’t advise whether you should see “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” but I found the musical’s gentle generosity to be uplifting. It’s far from a perfect show, but there’s a reason it’s found favor throughout the world. This heartening tale of extravagant individuality triumphing over claustrophobic conformity is made for the theater.

Layton Williams, center, in "Everybody's Talking About Jamie."
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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‘Everybody's Talking About Jamie’

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Ends Feb. 20

Tickets: Start at $35

Info: (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org/

Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

Information on Center Theatre Group’s COVID-19 healthy and safety requirements can be found at centertheatregroup.org/visit/health-and-safety