Musical explores gender, identity

Cyclodrama is in its fourth season, its second in residence at Club Diversity in the Brewery District, where shows provide an intimate, almost parlor theater experience. It's a great place to not only see local theater of and for the community, but also to find a hidden musical theater gem.

Such is “Splendora,” a 1998 musical by Peter Webb, Stephen Hoffman and Mark Campbell, based on a 1978 novel of the same name by Edward Swift. The story concerns a small Texas town, the departure of an unhappy young man (Timothy), the arrival of a new librarian (Jessica) 15 years later and how the two just might be connected. Indeed, it appears as though Timothy has returned with her.

Explaining this without giving away the story's twist gives away the story's twist. Suffice to say, both Timothy and Jessica appear on stage throughout the play, but the people of Splendora don't see them both. That Jessica and the town preacher fall in love adds a layer to this twist.

Despite the 20-year difference between the novel and the stage musical, and the 20 more years between its premiere on stage and the Cyclodrama production, two things are clear: “Splendora” remains a lesser-known work, and its themes are as resonant today as they have ever been (even if the way those themes are addressed might not be).

If you want grand statements on trans issues and the LGBTQ community, “Splendora” might not be the show for you. But if the story of one person wrestling with issues of identity, gender and acceptance (including the “self” kind) — told with heart and at times over-the-top humor and silliness, set to a Sondheim-esque score of off-kilter and beautiful Broadway-style tunes — sounds like a great night at the theater, then this production will suit you just fine.

“It doesn't delve too deeply into [social issues]. It's really just very personal and [Timothy] finding his voice in [Jessica],” said director Tony Love in an interview at Club Diversity. “There's a beautiful song called ‘Grateful' that [Timothy] sings to [Jessica] that speaks to that.”

“Because it's a musical rather than a dramatic piece, there's some fun and a lot of comic relief that shows the themes in a different way, so you can be a little timely with the social themes but also have a lot of fun,” Love said.

Lauren Murphy and Sonny Panzica (Jessica and Timothy, respectively) acknowledge the at-times tricky nature of their onstage relationship, as their conflict is simultaneously internal and external.

“It can affect an audience for sure, seeing things play out onstage that aren't normally — that real internal conflict played out live,” Murphy said. “The issue of gender is really a very personal one, so there's a real self-love kind of exploration happening.”

“There's very much a focus on the grayness of gender and gender as a social construct,” Panzica said. “[Timothy] is, I guess, non-binary, because he doesn't really identify and the play never really goes there. I just hope people don't pigeonhole the character based on the way we understand gender now, because he doesn't really ever say.”

If you haven't yet figured out the twist, don't sweat it. There's a pretty clear reveal near the end of the first act.

“There's a character, Sue Ella, who figures it out and does a whole song about it near the end of Act I,” Love said. “We're basically saying, ‘If you haven't gotten it by now, we're just going to tell you.'”