Thoughts & Musings

Drag queen Payton St. James says 2nd Story role a good fit

Payton St. James can't be more perfect to play faded lounge singer Angela Arden, star of Charles Busch's outrageous "Die, Mommie, Die."

by Channing Gray, Providence Journal
  • 13th July 201513/07/15
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Some actors are born for certain roles.

Take Payton St. James, who can’t be more perfect to play faded lounge singer Angela Arden, star of Charles Busch’s outrageous “Die, Mommie, Die,” which opens Friday, July 17, at Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre. But this “she” is actually a “he,” played by a drag queen per order of Busch, himself a female impersonator.

And St. James, 42, knows a little about changing into something more comfortable. St. James, whose real name is Michael McAdam, has been a female impersonator as a sort of hobby for the past couple of decades, while holding down a corporate job with Verizon. He’d majored in theater at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, but found his dreams of a life on Broadway fading and the need for a job becoming reality.

So he took the position with Verizon, while joining the cast of “Illusions,” the longest running drag show in Provincetown. Then in February, he retired from the corporate world to devote himself to the stage, which he admits might be the best move he’s ever made or the worst.

But,” he said, “you realize your passion is more important than anything else.”

That’s when the offer to star in the zany “Die, Mommie, Die” came along. His friend, Ron Cesario, the costume designer for the show, alerted him to the production, said he’d be perfect, and director Ed Shea took him on.

“Die, Mommie, Die” is running in repertoire with “I Hate Hamlet,” alternating each week in 2nd Story’s upstairs performance space through the summer. So McAdam will be spending one weekend in Provincetown at the Crown and Anchor Inn and the next in Warren at 2nd Story.

“I was struggling to find work and looking for great roles,” said McAdam about his days after graduating from college. “Then I saw a drag show in 1996 and decided to give it a shot. It was kind of a joke to get my feet wet, but I was able to create a completely different character than myself.”

McAdam, who grew up north of Boston but now lives in downtown Providence, has done a fair amount of traditional theater in the past, but says at the moment all his work is as a female impersonator. He does impressions of Liza and mom Judy Garland, as well as Bette Davis, roles that he said took him years to perfect.

Acting takes up most of his time. Otherwise McAdam likes to hang out with his husband of 10 years, Steve Morin, a retired police officer who has two grown sons from a previous relationship. He said Morin supports him in whatever he does.

As for Busch’s play, that’s a tangle of twists and turns. Angela, McAdam’s character, is married unhappily to her film director husband, Sol, who discovers that she is having an affair with Tony, the tennis-playing gigolo. As punishment, Sol takes away her credit cards and sabotages her chances for a gig in New York. To get even, Angela slips the ever-constipated Sol an arsenic-laced suppository.

The part of Angela is meant to be played by a female impersonator, and Busch starred in the lead role when the play first premiered.

But this campy play only gets more preposterous, with mistaken identities and improbable outcomes.

“People think Busch is out for just a laugh,” said McAdam, “but he’s such a good writer there’s more to it than that, thanks to Ed [Shea].” McAdam said he’s never worked with such a “committed” director as Shea, who, he said, can change the inflection of one word in a monologue and change the whole scene.

McAdam said Cesario’s costumes for the show should be pretty outrageous. They have to be flattering and sexy, while being worn by a man. He said Cesario has made at least a half-dozen outfits for him that are “amazing.”

The one thing McAdam doesn’t do, though, is sing.

“Most people want to be in musical theater,” he said, “but I’m terrible at it.”

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