Sequins and feathers are business attire for the drag-queen performers in “Dorian’s Closet.” In an early number in this new musical from Rep Stage, the divas regale a New York nightclub, tossing off verses that, essentially, advise the clientele against romanticism. “I got a job to do/ I’m workin’ here,” the showgirls sing, displaying hard-bitten professional pragmatism.
The line “I’m workin’ here” might almost be the motto of this methodical musical, which features a book and lyrics by Richard Mailman and music by Ryan Haase. Loosely based on a true story involving a violent death, a macabre discovery and a charismatic female impersonator, the tale has mystery and razzle-dazzle, and Haase’s score is infectiously moody. But the lyrics can be flat and the dialogue scenes often register as planned-out and stilted. As directed in less-than-flowing fashion by Joseph W. Ritsch, “Dorian’s Closet” labors sedulously to explain its subject — and you can feel the effort.
The show’s eponymous central character is Dorian Corey, a female impersonator and designer who appeared in the 1991 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” about New York drag balls, avenues for wildly creative expression by members of the African American and Latino gay and transgender communities. After Corey died in 1993, a mummified corpse with a gunshot wound was found in her closet. While speculating on how the body might have wound up there, the musical strives to probe the aspirations behind Corey’s life and career.
Stephen Scott Wormley brings poise and charisma to the role of Dorian. But he can’t compensate for the fact that, as written here, Dorian’s dreams and yearnings — for fame and love — register as a little generic. (As the character sings at one point: “I’m gonna be famous/ I’m gonna shine bright.”)
Dwayne Washington is delightful as the regal and withering Pepper LaBeija, Dorian’s friend and rival, and James Thomas Frisby (who sings beautifully) packs bounce into the role of Jesse Torres, another colleague at Sally’s Hideaway, the New York nightclub. Tiziano D’Affuso, Ian Anthony Coleman and Richard Westerkamp ably channel additional showgirls. All of these characters look smashing in the glamorous gowns and statement footwear whipped up by costume designer Sarah Cubbage.
But the production often lacks flow, with choppy transitions, and characters moving or standing stiffly within the scenes. An exception to the un-supple aesthetic is “Pay the Tab,” during which the showgirls play peekaboo through panels in the dreamlike collages of doors that flank the stage. (Daniel Ettinger designed the set, and an unseen five-piece band provides accompaniment.)
Haase’s music captures the zest of Dorian and her colleagues and the vulnerable position they hold in society. Unlike some aspects of this show, the score does its job with fluency and flair.
Dorian’s Closet. Book and lyrics by Richard Mailman; music by Ryan Haase. Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch; musical direction, orchestrations and additional music, Stacey Antoine; choreography, Rachel Leigh Dolan; light design, Joseph Walls; sound, Mark Smedley; properties, Mollie Singer; fight choreography, Jenny Male. With Keith Richards and Jay Adriel. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Through May 14 at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center,on the campus of Howard Community College 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia, Md. $15-40. 443-518-1500. repstage.org.