The Eisenhower era was a repressive time in America. Women could legally be harassed by police just for wearing pants, and homosexuality was considered a shameful crime as well as a mental illness, for which the police could toss a man or woman into a psychiatric hospital.
Illustrating this lack of civil liberties with smooth and entertaining song is "Play It Cool", a noirish jazz musical about a secret gay nightclub off Sunset Boulevard in 1953 Los Angeles, a town where the police were notoriously hostile toward gay people.
The playful, polished production, which opened Wednesday night off-Broadway at the Acorn on Theatre Row, features Broadway veteran Sally Mayes, an accomplished musical performer who gives the show a genuinely jazzy feel.
The original musical is well-served by Mark Winkler's light-hearted lyrics, and wry, deliberately cliche-filled dialogue by Martin Casella and Larry Dean Harris, both liberally sprinkled with quips and double-entendres. Harris also conceived the show, with most of the energetic music by Phillip Swann and arrangements by Joe Baker.
"Play It Cool" is well-directed by Sharon Rosen, who seamlessly guides her talented cast through almost 30 well-sung musical numbers, with snappy choreography by Marc Kimelman.
Mayes portrays the owner of the hidden club, called Mary's Hideaway. A hard-driving, rough-talking former jazz singer, Mary's in a testy relationship with her current "doll singer," sultry Lena (Robyn Hurder, poured into her costumes and vamping it up.) Hurder's bombshell appearance is only outshone by her soaring vocals.
Mayes may not be the most convincing butch lesbian you'll ever see onstage — although she's delightful in numbers like "My Man Drag" — but she's a gifted singer whose scatting adds authenticity to musical numbers like "Jazz is a Special Taste" and "Scattin' in the Moonlight." The sizzling three-piece onstage combo is led by music director David Libby on piano, as Mary's longtime bandleader, Smokey.
Michael F. McGuirk is all cool toughness as Henry, the narrator and a cop on the take, who Mary pays to protect her club, mostly from other cops. A gleefully cynical Chris Hoch plays sleazy, closeted gay Hollywood producer, Eddie. He bursts into the as-yet-unopened club with Will, (an earnestly likable portrayal by Michael Buchanan) a fresh-faced young kid right off the bus from South Carolina.
Will turns out to be a talented singer, once he learns to "swing" under Mary's direction, and he brings out a softer side in both Mary and Henry. Will has told his parents he's gay and proud of it, before leaving home. Everybody tries to explain to him how to hide his true nature, in order to fit in with the uptight public face of show biz. As Eddie puts it, "We're all pretending to be someone we're not."
Events escalate with the approach of Mary's opening night. Long-held secrets are revealed and betrayals are in the air, all unfolding inside the small nightclub as an unseen menace constantly hovers just outside. The shadowy ambience of the underground bar, designed by Thomas A. Walsh and lit with precision by Deb Sullivan, aids the increasingly tense atmosphere.
Although "Play It Cool" is just a couple of hours long, it easily takes the audience back seven decades to a time when just being yourself, if you didn't fit societal restrictions, demanded immense courage. And a good sense of humor.