Being Beautiful, Bailiwick Repertory. McKinley Johnson and Stephanie Newsom’s musical (somewhat revised since its premiere last summer at the Chicago Theatre Company) succeeds on the strength of its offbeat subject and lively performances. Johnson himself plays Afton, a black sharecropper’s son transformed into gender-bending nightclub star Aftrina in 1940s Chicago under the tutelage of gay grande dame Lonette (Duwane Pendarvis) and his proteges, Ellen (Langstan Smith) and Leslie (Eric Jorgensen). Aftrina’s reckless youth–and the tragedy that forces him back into the closet–is recalled in flashback in 1970 by the middle-aged Afton (Sanford E. Gaylord), a spinsterish fusspot forced to confront his past by his inquisitive college-student niece (Sophia Hinshelwood, wearing the world’s worst Afro wig) despite the disapproval of her proper mother (Chavez Ravine).
Johnson’s script salutes Aftrina and his lavender sisters as queer pioneers while reveling in their outrageous humor. Under David Zak’s direction, the action–which jumps back and forth in time–and Johnson’s device of splitting Afton’s character in two are much stronger than they were last year, and Joel Hall’s choreography is delightful. The show still stumbles at the end: Johnson’s handling of Afton’s affair with an uptight insurance exec is clumsy, and the climactic violence is arbitrary and melodramatic. But the cast’s rendition of Johnson and Newsom’s jazz-tinged score is excellent, and Johnson is captivating as the innocent and vain, sweet-natured and embittered young Afton, whose quest for inner and outer beauty drives the plot.