Thursday, November 5, 2009

He's baaack: Harvey Milk visits Onstage Atlanta

Posted By on Thu, Nov 5, 2009 at 4:49 PM

click to enlarge Geoff "Googie" Uterhardt as gay rights icon Harvey Milk in the Onstage Atlanta production 'The Harvey Milk Show'
  • Geoff "Googie" Uterhardt as gay rights icon Harvey Milk in the Onstage Atlanta production 'The Harvey Milk Show'

Gay rights icon Harvey Milk was murdered in 1978, but people refuse to let him go.  A biography and Oscar-winning documentary in the '80s were followed by the successful play The Harvey Milk Show composed by Atlantan Patrick Hutchison in the ’90s. Then, the dam broke with last year's success of the Oscar-winning feature film Milk, starring Sean Penn.

Around that time, local director Barbara Cole Uterhardt and her husband, actor Googie Uterhardt, approached Hutchison about bringing the production back.  “Sure enough, Patrick was willing to work with us,” Googie says.  And now The Harvey Milk Show is back at Onstage Atlanta through November 21.

“They made some changes, added a song in that hadn’t been in for awhile,” says Googie.  “Then I auditioned and got the part.”

“The part” would be the role of Harvey Milk, the gay community’s closest approximation of Martin Luther King, played by the only straight male actor in the entire production.

“It was daunting, first just because he was a historical figure, but then, yes, being straight and taking that on,” Googie says.  “But as I researched and got to know him better I got to realize that he was pushing for equality across the board: the rights of women, the rights of Asians, the elderly,” he says. “But still there is that going on opening night thinking, a lot of gay people are going to see this show and I hope that they don’t say, ‘Well why’d they give this to a breeder?’  [laughs]  But nobody’s harder on me than me as far as getting a performance right.”

The pressure wasn’t only on Googie, of course.  Those familiar with Milk’s story will recognize certain characters, including his killer Dan White, played by Jeffrey Brown. Liberties are taken with other roles, such as the character of Jamey (played by Bryan Lee), who is a composite of Milk’s boyfriends.

“Every actor really wanted to make sure that we portrayed this in reality as much as possible,” Barbara says.  “So there would be times where we’d have to stop rehearsal and say, ‘What did actually happen here?’ or ‘What did Dan White say?’”

But the essence of the story remains intact.  And one crucial element of that story is something many more viewers are aware of since the production last came through town: his assassination.

“People know it’s coming,” says Barbara.  “They’re waiting for it since the second act begins.  And once Dan White has that gun out, you know it’s coming in the next few minutes.”

But The Harvey Milk Show goes into more depth than the film in the aftermath of Milk’s murder.

“The main point of the end of the show is to leave the audience feeling like everybody should be a part of a movement like this, whether you’re a minority or not, whether you’re a politician or not, if you are just somebody in Atlanta, you don’t have to live in San Francisco, if you feel like something needs to be changed, you can change it,” says Barbara.

The cast and crew have been spreading that message in their numerous appearances around town since the musical opened.  They continue to visit area restaurants after every Saturday night performance for after-hours parties where they talk with the audience about the show and the man himself.  They even brought Harvey back to life during last weekend’s Pride parade with Googie in character riding in a convertible alongside other activists and politicians.

“My favorite word ever is ‘hope.’  And it’s in the play so much, it’s in the last scene, it’s from one of his most famous speeches,” says Barbara. “The essence of the play is hope.”

(Photo courtesy Onstage Atlanta)

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