Riding the wave of the final musical episode of Amazon Prime’s hit series Transparent comes an unabashed Broadway musical version based on the same show.
Written by MJ Kaufman and Joey Soloway, with songs by Faith Soloway, “A Transparent Musical” has the best intentions but an effective production that does not make. With numerous characters, a chaotic plot, and a plethora of story threads, this World Premiere has some nice moments, but as a whole, it’s a bit all over the place.
Like the original TV series, the musical focuses on the Pfefferman family, which consists of a newly trans woman Maura (Daya Curly), her ex-wife Shelly (Liz Larsen), their youngest child (Adina Version), their son Josh (Zachary Prince), and their eldest daughter Sarah (Sarah Stiles). We get to know them when they are called to meet with their father, who explains to them that he is now trans and would like to be called Maura. This throws the kids for a loop, and the situation only gets more frenetic when her ex-wife discovers her new truth at a Purim event at their community center.
This would make for an effective plot as each of the kids struggles with their “father’s” new identity and their own identity issues. But Kaufman and Soloway add in new characters of Davina (Peppermint) and Ezra (Kasper), who have a journey of discovery to go through of their own.
Meanwhile, Maura’s child Ali is coming to terms with their gender identity, which involves time-traveling back to Germany to find a long-lost relative who was discovering their sexual and gender identity as well.
Basically, there is a lot going on, and none of it goes very deep. The story threads have tremendous meaning and value, but they are shortchanged by trying to do too much and be too much for everyone. Sure, the opening night crowd of influencers and celebrities of different gender identities and sexualities loved each affirmation, but that’s to be expected. When we pull back the joy of representation, we still need to see a focused show that appeals to more than the choir it’s preaching to.
With twenty songs, this show is the textbook example of needing to kill your babies. That means less is more, and not every piece written needs to find its way into the narrative. Sometimes a few lines of dialogue will take care of what a four-minute song is telling you. And there are some great songs here that are worthy of our ears. Ali’s self-discovery ballad “If You Are You” is dramatically touching, and Shelly’s showstopper “The Secret to a Marriage” is a hoot.
Directed by Tina Landau, the show tries its best to keep all its plates spinning. In a larger theater, some of the musical numbers could have had more space to play. Maura and Shelly’s “Who Suffered More” begs to be a full-blown tango number as they complete about the tragedy of their lives. However, the Community Center setting that becomes part of the theater itself adds nothing to the narrative .
Despite its best intentions, the show as it stands needs focus. The Davina/Ezra subplot is unnecessary here despite the commitment of both actors. Maura – being the literal “trans-parent” – gets completely sidelined by other subplots, including Ali’s odd journey back in time to a Cabaret club of “misfits” and “outliers” like them. It’s a diversion that goes on far too long and either could have been the entire show or should be relegated to one number and be done with it.
That said, all the actors shine here, with Vernon and Larsen being the standouts. Every single performer gives it their all, and that is most of the reason audiences will stay invested. But as it stands, the audience won’t be sure whose journey to focus on. Is it Ali’s? Maura’s? Shelly’s? Davina’s? If the book dialed back to just the Pfefferman family and eschewed the entire Jewish Community Center setting, it might find its footing – and its wings.
As it stands, it wants to be too much for too many people instead of pulling it down to its essence. There are many stories to tell in the trans community, but one show doesn’t have to attempt to tell them all. With more thought and a lot of editing, this could find its way into being a touchstone for trans inclusivity and understanding. As it stands, it’s a bit too messy to find its footing.
Tickets for “A Transparent Musical” are available through CenterTheatreGroup.org,
Audience Services at (213) 628-2772,
or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Offices (at the Ahmanson Theatre)
at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.
Performances run Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.,
Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.,
and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.