Leslie Jordan travels an uproarious road from Tennessee to Tinseltown in RTP's "Hysterical Blindness." 

Songs of the South

Some people will tell you it's the howlingly funny jokes that make the latest production by the Richmond Triangle Players such a treat. Others may say that the sassy but softhearted outlook on southern eccentricity sets the show apart. And certainly everyone will agree that the play's star, impish sitcom vet Leslie Jordan, is an indisputable hoot as he scampers and sashays through the story of his life.

But many people will overlook what I think is the real key to the success of "Hysterical Blindness and Other Southern Tragedies That Have Plagued My Life Thus Far." It's the songs. They're not brilliant songs and, given that the show is primarily a one-man comedy routine, they tend to be overshadowed by Jordan's engaging antics. But, still, it is the musical numbers that save this show from being another one of those "comic tells the sad but hilarious story of his/her life" plays.

Not (to paraphrase "Seinfeld") that there is anything wrong with that kind of show, particularly when it's as funny as "Hysterical Blindness." But RTP put on Steve Moore's "I Never Knew Oz Was in Color" just last summer and, without the songs, "Hysterical Blindness" would be in many ways identical. Like Moore, Jordan is gay and was raised in the south (Tennessee), suffered childhood doubts and taunting, and then went to Hollywood where he has enjoyed a comfortable level of fame. Jordan's breakthrough came on "Murphy Brown" and he has made numerous sitcom appearances since. He came back home to take care of his mother (in the "nuthouse" suffering from hysterical blindness) and eventually reconciles his past with his present.

Throughout it all, Jordan woos and wins the audience with flawless timing, comic cattiness, and the occasional heart-felt revelation. His performance would be enough to make this a very good show, but the songs (written by Joe Patrick Ward) make it great, encapsulating entire volumes of commentary in just a few phrases. The hymnlike "God Loves the Baptist" is a concise summary of Southern racism. In "Mother, May I Be Forgiven?" Jordan releases the pent-up frustration he has with his mother in a murderous fantasy. These are funny songs and Ward laces them with silly turns-of-phrase and ribald rhymes, including a couplet whose first line ends with "pit hole" — can you guess how the second line ends? Hey, it isn't Sondheim, but it's shameless good fun nonetheless.

Jordan's back-up choir has members that range in talent from OK to outstanding. They are led by reliable pianist, musical director, and occasional vocalist Tim Gillham who delivers one of the shows moving moments with his poignant rendition of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." The six choir members also play characters and caricatures from Jordan's life. Jay McCullough is given the greatest opportunity to shine, playing everything from Jordan's dad to a snooty doctor to a Buddhist chant leader.

According to Jordan, the South breeds rampant lunacy. "Hysterical Blindness" is a sidesplitting slice of his specific brand of lunacy and we can be thankful he's come to Richmond to share it with


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