Arts, Culture & Entertainment

‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ lets everyone know they belong

The Sheffield Theatres production with Center Theatre Group upholds a joyous space while it slowly chugs toward its emotional core.

Layton Williams playing 'Jamie New' in "Everybody's Talking About Jamie" stands center stage, looking up at the audience while a birthday banner hang behind him and the streets of Sheffield are projected behind him.

In a burst of light, Jamie (Layton Williams) struts on stage in a bright red dress with his silhouette projected on the curtains for his first appearance in drag. The muttered slurs and gossip surrounding his life fade into the background while a smile spreads across his face. He is happier than he’s ever been.

“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” shares the true story of Jamie New, a 16-year-old from Sheffield who dreams of being a drag queen despite people like his teacher rebuking any career beyond the bounds of his hometown. With the support of his friend Pritti (Hiba Elchikhe), his mother Margaret (Melissa Jacques), family friend Ray (Shobna Gulati) and Victor’s Secret owner Hugo (Roy Haylock), he slowly makes his dreams come true and finds the courage to wear a dress to prom.

Jamie’s story is one of belonging, showing that despite the words people call you, there is always space for you to be your authentic self.

The school bully, Dean Paxton (George Sampson), frequently turns to Jamie to ridicule him and call him gay. Instead of feeding into the homophobia, Jamie retorts, “I am gay.” Jamie as a character is proud and confident, offering a refreshing perspective of being an out teenager. Although Jamie exudes a tough sense of pride for who he is k, his relationship with his father shows a softer side. “The Wall in My Head” is the first song that unpacks Jamie’s struggle to find closure with his father, who left him at a young age. When it comes to opening up to the reality of Jamie’s relationship with his father, it takes him a while to sink into the heavy emotions of their relationship, or lack thereof. Those feelings begin to come up in act two. By the time he gets to “Ugly in This Ugly World,” he finds the emotion in the low point. Each word sung feels like a piercing pain in the heart that throbs at each syllable. Slowly, the emotion releases.

Jamie can’t be the person he is without the support he receives from his mother and his best friend, each encouraging him to be okay with his vulnerability. Pritti’s character is subtle at the start but slowly becomes a larger part of Jamie’s world. From fixing his eyebrows in the bathroom to being a shoulder to cry on, she represents a true friend who always ensures he belongs. Through “It Means Beautiful,” Pritti shows a bit more of herself and the beauty of Jamie. Elchikhe steers the character to follow each note of their friendship while also coming into her own confidence. Although her character deserved a stronger presence in the musical, the times that she is on stage are luminous.

Jamie New shows off his new bright blue lashes to his classmates who look at him in awe and confusion. His hands are spread next to his head to show off his new creative addition.

Meanwhile, Hugo, Jamie’s unofficial drag mother, portrays a more direct version of support. As Hugo shares his history as drag queen Loco Chanelle (Bianca Del Rio), Jamie sees a future he never thought possible. Del Rio, the season six winner of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” combines her phyiscal comedy with her glamorous stage presence to takes the stage as an unexpectedly powerful addition to Jamie’s story. Although Haylock may not have the same vocal abilities as the rest of the cast, his performance quality is more than enough to keep the audience engaged.

Jamie’s mother is the best parent a queer child could dream of. She supports him, even as he confesses his love for drag. Jacques fills up the stage even as she stands alone with a bench. Her voice plows through the pains of motherhood and fatherhood as she takes on the role of both for Jamie. Margaret’s regrets are in Jacques voice and tone that feels like a resounding, soulful choir released by a single person. Once again, she stands along during “He’s My Boy,” left with the remains of an argument that she uses to pull together and make whole once again, though taped and jagged. Her performance reflects this. She stands still and silent, looking up for an answer. Without speaking, you see it all in her eyes. In a final, heartbreaking “he’s my boy,” we have a glimpse of motherhood so raw and real.

During her first solo song, “If I Met Myself Again,” Margaret is accompanied by two dancers from the ensemble who put her story to movement in a beautiful reflection of herself and her relationship with Jamie’s father. On paper, it sounds like a chaotic balance between song and dance. But on stage, dancers Zion Battles and Kazmin Borrer beautifully reflect a one-sided relationship. The choreography by Kate Prince combines elements of house and contemporary to construct a repeated phrase that cycles through until separation is the only option. In one moment they slowly move into each other’s arms and in the next they jut their limbs away in sharp movements, reflecting the painful reality of an inevitable end. Prince’s choreography throughout the show is playful but is also not afraid to let the performers’ caliber in varying dance forms ranging from whacking to jazz.

The show itself slowly unravels. Under the direction of Jonathan Butterell, the show allows concrete hues to implode into a colorful world. It provides physical comedy when you need it most and flows effortlessly together as the transitions hold a succinct speed and theatricality. The combined elements of the set design by Anna Fleischle, lighting design by Lucy Carter and video design by Luke Halls allow the musical to ebb and flow from reality to the abstract. Their work shined best in “Work of Art” as Miss Hedge (Gillian Ford) leads the ensemble from the halls of school to a world that feels like a music video. Large LED light bars line the sides of the stage as videos of Miss Hedge and Jamie are projected on the walls of the set. In a tycoon of dance, the stage feels like an endless corridor that somehow dissipates with a final flashing light.

Butterell also came up with the idea of the musical after viewing the documentary “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16″ one night while channel hopping. The documentary followed the story of a boy who wanted to go to prom in a dress. Butterell was inspired by the story and turned to make the musical with musician Dan Gillespie Sells and scriptwriter Tom Macrae. Since its premiere at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, the story has gone to the West End and to Amazon Prime in a movie-musical adaptation.

The story has traveled as far as Jamie’s confidence. Its reach is attributed to the musical’s universal theme of belonging. As Jamie dawns on a pair of heels, he stands with his head up. In one final joyous number, the cast brings the audience in on the celebration of Jamie’s prom night. As a reminder of the beauty in queerness, Williams hugs everyone on stage before twirling off with the same pride he held as Jamie stepping forward for his first drag performance. His smile is as wide as can be as he looks back at the audience one last time.

“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” runs now until Feb. 20 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For more information click here.