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'Naked Boys Singing!' Fights City Hall -- Again

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Perhaps it's time to change the title of "Naked Boys Singing!" to "Naked Boys Fighting to Sing."

On Aug. 18, the Milwaukee Police Department's vice squad shut down a licensed, nonunion production of the musical revue "Naked Boys Singing!" Although the musical has played successfully in such cities as Houston, Chicago, San Diego, London, Rome, Oslo, and Cape Town, it has ruffled local feathers in other places. The Milwaukee closing was at least the fourth such occurrence in the show's history.

Conceived by Robert Schrock, "Naked Boys Singing!" is written in a fluid form that features the music and lyrics of about a baker's dozen authors; licensed productions are often allowed to remove or add numbers as they wish. The show premiered in Los Angeles in 1998 and then opened Off-Broadway in 1999. With witty, playful numbers like "Nothin' But the Radio On," loopy double-entendres (the song "I Beat My Meat" is about a butcher), and several soulful tunes thrown in for leavening, the show is a lighthearted gay revue sung sans trousers.

An Atlanta production was deemed pornographic and shut down by that city's vice squad in 2004. A production in San Juan, Puerto Rico, also deemed pornographic, was closed in 2003 when the theatre's board of directors walked out of the first dress rehearsal, according to Max Wixom, communications director for Martian Entertainment, which licenses the show.

Wixom added, "Producers appealed to the courts but were overruled by an appeals court. It never reopened."

But perhaps the biggest surprise in the show's dealings with local constabulary was the 2001 closing of the show in, of all places, Provincetown, Mass., long known as an artists colony and gay resort area. Calling the show "adult entertainment," the locality issued a cease-and-desist order that the theatre ignored, choosing instead to perform and face citations. Eventually, all onstage nudity was banned in Provincetown until the matter was brought before the courts.

Even the long-running Off-Broadway production has not been free of controversy. When it was included on a list of shows for which discounted tickets would be offered to the attendees of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, some delegates complained. The show was subsequently removed from the list, although tickets already purchased using that particular discount code were honored.

The Milwaukee production's troubles began when Drew Heiss, a local street evangelist, took it upon himself to fight the show, produced and directed by Mark Hooker and presented by his Uncommon Theatre Company in cooperation with the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center (MGAC). The show opened Aug. 11.

"I heard about the show and I think I read a review somewhere," said Heiss, speaking from home. "I thought that something was wrong, that they shouldn't be able to do that. I thought that there might be some legality issues to look at."

Recalling that a strip club ran afoul of the law in a nearby Wisconsin city for lack of proper licensing, Heiss made an open-records request with the city of Milwaukee and was told that the MGAC did not have an appropriate theatre license.

"I called the police and told them about this art center and told them about the nude dancing and they referred me to the vice squad," Heiss said. "They took the info and said they would look into it."

About a week later, he said, he got a call from the police saying the production would be closed as a result of his open-records request.

Hooker, a retired Equity actor with many years of New York theatre among his credits, was nothing short of amazed when the police showed up at the theatre.

"They even had a paddy wagon there," he said. "I had never actually seen a paddy wagon before."

And although he recalls thinking there might be a couple of religious protesters at the theatre, Hooker said, "I never dreamed I would have a show closed by the police. It just never occurred to me -- it's such an innocent show -- that anything could go wrong."

Hooker had little choice but to turn the situation over to the MGAC's board of directors and its lawyer, Richard Hart. Meanwhile, the closing of "Naked Boys Singing!" once again made theatre news around the country.

"I got a note from Robert Schrock that said, 'Welcome to the club,' " Hooker said.

By Aug. 26, the city had begun backing off the license demand, Hooker reported, because nonprofit entities such as the MGAC are not required to have the theatre license in question. The production is now slated to reopen on Oct. 29 and run through Dec. 31. When the show opened in August, it had only nine performances scheduled, with the option to extend as dictated by box office.

Hooker's victory in reopening "Naked Boys Singing!" also marks at least the fourth time a challenged production of the show has won its battle.

The Atlanta production, for example, reopened after the charges of pornography were dropped. In Provincetown, the nudity ban persisted until a lawsuit put an end to it; "Naked Boys Singing!" returned to Cape Cod in 2004. But the San Juan production never opened at all, although the producers were eventually awarded $1.3 million in a court case.

At first glance, the lengthier second run of the show in Milwaukee makes it look as though the flap with the law was a boon. Hooker, however, called the debacle "a financial disaster," although he added that he was unable to disclose how much money the closing of the show may have cost him, or whether the reopening of the show and a run through the busy holiday season would mitigate his losses.

He also expressed concern over the upcoming reopening of the show, citing a statement on Heiss' website, www.streetpreach.com. In five paragraphs taking the form of a press release, he announced a "controversial" work, "The Stoning of a Sodomite," in which an "all-male cast will be fully clothed" and during which "the actual stoning to deal of a real, live sodomite" will occur. The statement further explains that the play will be performed as "street theatre" in front of the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center and that "the main character of the play, Sammy the sodomite, will be recruited" from the center. At the bottom of the page, Heiss calls the statement "tongue-in-cheek."

When asked about what he really has planned for the show's reopening, Heiss said, "I plan to be at some of the shows and protesting, but I'm not sure what else I could do. I'm also considering protesting City Hall after the way the mayor and the police have given in so easily."

Carl D. White, who calls himself the "leader" of Martian Entertainment, sees a larger context for the run-ins the show has had over the years.

"Although any forced closure of a licensed production of 'Naked Boys Singing!' by a local government is certainly undesirable from a business standpoint, we always try to view these incidents as a positive rather than a negative," he said. "After all, we are simply exercising our right to free speech and self-expression.

"Moreover," he continued, "I feel that the forced closing of several of our licenses has actually kept the issue of free speech and artistic expression in the mainstream headlines and, in turn, has helped actually decrease some of the negative views about 'Naked Boys Singing!' and, indirectly, of other art forms that might be labeled as 'indecent' or something that the public should fear. Art should not be feared; it should be embraced, practiced, and defended at all costs."

Although Hooker recalls performing some "pretty wild theatre" during his years in New York, he said, "I was never one to seek out controversial theatre. But I will now. In the country we used to call the United States, we used to have the right to present art without this kind of harassment."

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