Helsinki on Broadway with James Lecesne and “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey”

James Lecesne brought his show from Manhattan to Helsinki Hudson this past weekend.

James Lecesne brought his show from Manhattan to Helsinki Hudson this past weekend.

Fun theatre in a nightclub setting works splendidly
by Larry Murray

Let there be no question that Club Helsinki in Hudson was designed as a wonderful music venue with cabaret seating, great food and wonderful acts that have made this nightspot one of the region’s best known and run. They’ve hosted big names and small, and for the past few years independent producer Lee Tannen has been bringing some of New York City’s finest Broadway belters to the club as well as part of his Helsinki on Broadway series.

This past weekend, they tried something new: live theatre that combined drama and comedy in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, which is a one man tour-de-force written and performed by James Lecesne. The actor plays half a dozen plus roles during the course of the story of a flamboyant young man who often was a bit more than his small town could take, wearing eye makeup and sneakers layered with flipflops in rainbow colors. He disappears one night, and, yes, it is a hate crime that needs to be solved. Along the way we meet his adopted mother and sister, the bully, and a shopkeeper with real heart. As the story unfolds, without Lecesne ever taking on the role of Leonard himself, we get to know him through the stories told by those whose lives he touched. Lecesne has a way with organizing the threads of Pelkey’s life into spot on characterizations, accents, postures and details as small as puffing on a cigarette, tying a fishing knot and zipping up a dress.

The show began over a year ago and evolved over time into this bare-bones production which proceeds with only one actor, a few props, some incidental music by Duncan Sheik and a layer of polish, lovingly added by director Tony Speciale. There are a few well-chosen projections, too, created by Matthew Sandager. As we meet a hardened New Jersey detective the story begins to flesh out as he questions a withdrawn teenage girl and her abrasive but warmhearted hairdresser mom and the British proprietor of a dance-and-drama school. Each one polishes a different facet of the young Leonard’s life. Turns out that for Leonard, it is a difficult one because he insists on being himself, not someone else. Perhaps it is because of Lecesne’s work in helping form The Trevor Project (and the short film Trevor which earned him an Academy Award) that his insights into the plight of the young gay man ring so real and authentic.

Absolute Brightness began previews at Dixon’s Place in New York on February 7 and ran until March 29, (Milo Jordan reviewed) though tickets became completely sold out long before the end of the run. In speaking with the writer/actor after the show, he is preparing to repeat the popular show at another venue, this time Off Broadway for what could become a fairly decent run, “and following that?” someone asked. “Who knows,” he said, “perhaps even on the road.”

Inside Club Helsinki. Photo by Stephen Sorokoff.

Inside Club Helsinki. Photo by Stephen Sorokoff.

Certainly the one night performance at the Helsinki in Hudson shows that he can do a runout, set the lights, take the stage, and deliver a full blown performance with total effectiveness. The Club was packed, and in deference to live theatre and its natural voices – food and drinks were only served before the show, not during. The service at the nightspot is fast and delicious, and half the price of New York City. The only thing that might be reconsidered are the flickering candles on each table which certainly made the audience and its food and drink visible to those watching the show, but did prevent the blackouts from being totally effective. But that is a minor quibble given how well Lecesne utilized the shallow stage and was able to move about with ease.

Here’s hoping there will be repeats of this sort of event, the audience clearly welcomed this superb performance, and as one server noted as we chatted aferwards: “This is one of the nicest crowds we have ever had in here.”

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