Sylvester comes to life in ‘Mighty Real’ 

click to enlarge From left, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, DeAnne Stewart,  Rahmel McDade and Anthony Wayne appear in “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical.” - COURTEY JOAN MARCUS
  • From left, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey, DeAnne Stewart, Rahmel McDade and Anthony Wayne appear in “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical.”
A heady mix of disco, self-empowerment and San Francisco history make up “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical” onstage at the Brava Theater.

If the Valentine’s Day opening night’s festivities are any indication, this joyful and tuneful, if slender, show is in its righteous home (after a successful run off-Broadway) and will enjoy an extended stay in The City.

Sylvester, of course, is the gay star and cross-dressing icon that ruled San Francisco in the 1970s and ’80s with the hits “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat)” and his flamboyant fashion and lifestyle.

Standing under a disco ball, backed by a first-rate, five-piece band and powerful vocalists, Anthony Wayne channels the pop singer, deftly hitting the falsetto notes and wearing the sparkling clothes with aplomb.

Beginning with the comment, “Life is for the living and that’s just what I did,” Sylvester tells his own story, glossing over details of the presumably many difficult points, and sharing catchy if surface notions such as “Music was the oasis for my soul.” When he moved from his troubled childhood in Los Angeles to San Francisco, he found home, a place where, he says, “I could be who I wanted to be.”

He does share some basic facts. Born in 1947, called Dooni as a child, he was always “different” and had an affinity for music – gospel and the 1960s pop tunes of the day. Openly gay, he was thrown out his church, living on the streets, dressing in women’s clothes. After moving to San Francisco in 1967, he gained attention as a member of drag troupe The Cockettes, then went on to solo fame, backed by singers Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes (who sang “It’s Raining Men” as the Weather Girls). He had hit records, traveled the world, met and moved into a home in the hills with his lover, who died of AIDS.

Never himself getting tested, Sylvester died of AIDS in December 1988, after proudly attending that year’s S.F. Gay Pride Parade in a wheelchair.

Still, it’s the music that makes “Mighty Real” so fabulous. Folks in the audience (including Sylvester’s friends and family opening night) can’t help but get on their feet, dancing to the disco hits. Anastacia McCleskey as Izora and Jacqueline B. Arnold as Martha get some great solos (“Respect” and “Lady Marmalade” in addition to the Sylvester songs), while backup singer DeAnne Stewart kills “Proud Mary.”

In the end, “Mighty Real” is a proud celebration of a groundbreaking figure that made a mark not just on San Francisco, but the world.


Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical

Where: Brava Theater, 2781 24th St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes March 11

Tickets: $30 to $50


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Leslie Katz

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