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THEATER REVIEW Steamworks the Musical
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Stephanie McCullough, Mike Gifford, Parker Callahan & the cast. At: Annoyance Theatre, 851 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-697-9693;; $20. Run: Fridays through June 16

Long-partnered as I am, I didn't realize that bathhouse culture still flourishes in Chicago, or at least in Boystown, as the very funny Steamworks the Musical makes clear. This is an expanded version ( with new songs ) of an Annoyance Theatre hit of several years ago. It will be a hit again if its very limited run can be extended.

Y'see, Al the twink arrives from Nebraska saying, "I've never been gay before," meaning he couldn't act gay back home. ( I dunno, I had a really hot threesome once in Lincoln. ) Almost immediately Al meets Carol, the Boystown faghag who complains she can't score cock on the Halsted Strip. After a stand-and-pose stop at Roscoe's, Al follows a hot guy to Steamworks and quickly learns the ropes via song ( "The Lay of the Land" ) from bathhouse attendants Twinkie-Dee and Twinkie-Dum as well as long-term customer Chester, who claims he hasn't left Steamworks in 12 years. Eventually, Al connects with his dream man, a stooopid musclehead owned by the King of Steam, an assertive diva cock who rules the Steamworks roost. No more plot details or I'll spoil the fuck-off for you. Oh, didn't I say? There's a fuck-off between Al and the King of Steam. But enough!

The theater program doesn't identify who plays whom, but all 10 actors have strong voices and great comic timing, and Al is cute as a button. They sing about tits 'n' pits, the scuzzy whirlpool ( complete with turd puppets ), a love song ( "I'm Wet with Love" ) and a charmer titled "Falling into the Hole." You get the idea. Everyone uses condoms and there's a song about PrEP, which doesn't inhibit the gross-out jokes one bit. There are witty remarks as well, such as Al's admission that he's "not cool enough for Sidetracks" and never has "enough singles for Lucky Horseshoe." He may be a newbie but he's been around the block fast!

There's little story and little in the way of production values—a basic set and a few well-fastened towels—but that's the nature of the cabaret-style Annoyance Theatre. Music director Stephanie McCullough has coached the company well and accompanies on keyboard. Director Mike Gifford keeps things fast but crisp. He's very wisely refrained from picking a cast of Boystown beauties. Everyone onstage is a real person with a real-life body ( FYI, there is no full nudity ) ranging from buff to chub, blond hair to gray hair, chest hair to no hair.

American theater has a distinct subset of bathhouse plays: The Ritz ( McNally farce ), Steambath ( Bruce Jay Friedman's 1970 non-gay drama ) and Tubstrip, a 1974 gay comedy. Steamworks the Musical is a worthy addition. Some enterprising troupe should do them all in rotating repertory.

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