Last Thursday, while Beyoncé brought her diva-hood to St. Paul and likely flash-in-the-pan One Direction performed to the tween throngs at the Target Center, a much smaller crowd gathered at the Lab Theater to watch talented, diva-loving men strut their own glorious stuff.
Back for another summer run, When a Man Loves a Diva — the brainchild of Mary Kelly Leer, Sanford Moore, and Dane Stauffer — brings a fast-paced and entertaining evening of songs, old and new, made famous by female singers of all stripes. The show holds up to repeated viewings — I saw a similar production last summer — because of the talents of the three singers and the four-piece band, and because of the care that the creators put into piecing the show together.
It all starts with the winning trio at the microphones. Ben Bakken has been seen in plenty of musical-theater productions around town and was an Ivey winner for Jesus Christ Superstar (he was Jesus) at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. He brings plenty of youthful energy and a more current playlist to the game. Co-creator Stauffer brings his comedic skills, drawing on his years with Triple Espresso and Brave New Workshop and as a performer around the country. Julius Collins has spent time on stage as a performer and a singer — including as the lead singer of Greazy Meal. His fluid voice and wide vocal range allow him to sing everything from a falsetto to low bass.
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Some of the show is just for fun. Stauffer gets a comic moment out of "Like a Virgin," as he searches the audience for love, quickly rejecting each person in search of a better time, just like the song's famous singer. In another, the trio takes on the role of backup singers on "He's So Fine." With a spotlight illuminating a feather boa in the front (for the missing lead singer), they do their backup-singer choreography and add in the all-important vocal "oohs" and ahhs."
At the beginning, they tackle a bunch of songs from male "divas," such as "We Will Rock You" (Freddy Mercury, okay) and "Born to be Wild" (John Kay, maybe not so much, though there is a history of substance abuse and a constantly rotating lineup in Steppenwolf). Oh, and they had fun with some divas-in-training, including Lady Gaga and, yes, Beyoncé.
The meat of the show finds the singers approaching the songs head-on, providing terrific interpretations full of emotion and power. Bakken gets highlights in the first and second acts, first with a fiery reading of "Rollin' in the Deep" and then with Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me." The Raitt song was a terrific showcase for Bakken's singing skills, as he just sat on the lip of the stage and sang his heart out, letting his voice do all the interpretation needed for the scene.
Collins reached his inner diva via Chaka Khan ("Tell Me Something Good") and a glorious "I Will Always Love You" that reminded us of just what Whitney Houston brought to the table at the beginning of her career, before diva-dom brought it crashing down.
Stauffer spent a lot of time behind his comedic veneer, from his smoldering reading of "Fever" to his best Cher on "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves." It was a little frustrating at times, as it felt more like an act than the pure honesty we saw from the other two singers. When that layer does drop, Stauffer's performance more than equals the intensity of his comrades.
Co-creator Moore — of Moore by Four and plenty of other stages — leads the band, while a fairly simple stage setup gives the singers space to do their work. The Lab is a cavern-like room, but the cast does a fine job of filling it with plenty of music and energy.
There are showstoppers, of course. The players end act one on a considerable high, taking us through the Tina Turner version of "Proud Mary," with the "easy" first half and "rough" second half intact. And there's the closing medley (and encore number), where they bring out all of the joy of this music in its infectious glory.