“When I was about eleven years old, I became so dissatisfied with mediocrity,” Ryan J. Haddad says in a Bette Davis cadence. His new solo show, Falling for Make Believe at Joe’s Pub, recounts the exploits of the Haddad Family Theatre, a company he founded and managed as a particularly ruthless mid-90s child impresario. Think David Merrick, but a preteen. As the name would suggest, this theatre company starred members of his family, all of whom gamely carried out Haddad’s bidding over a move from living rooms to basements to, finally, an actual theatre. They received “offer letters” in which Haddad would let them know what role they would play and when their one rehearsal would be – and he would encourage them all to be off-book, for the sake of drama. The cabaret is about this family as much as it’s about his precociousness. The Haddad clan rallies around this young gay kid with cerebral palsy and helps him live out his dream.
Accompanied by Billy Stritch on piano, Haddad sings through roughly a dozen songs, most of which are reprised from their amateur productions. His singing is passable and his musical phrasing and sense of rhythm are sometimes lacking, but the vocalizing is not the point. Haddad walks us through how a childhood love of musical theatre kept him going, how he was always looking ahead to the next production, parsing out the roles and adapting the scripts (illegally). Even now, this person who is not a “musical theatre performer” is fed by the music. He feasts on Stritch’s strains of Richard Rodgers and Charles Strouse, he devours lyrics by Lorenz Hart and Martin Charnin. Haddad shows that it’s possible to be a creature of the musical theatre and not be Chita Rivera. It can be in your blood and in your soul anyway.
Haddad describes his family in as much detail as ninety minutes will allow, but it feels like we know these people intimately. His father played the title character in their production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown because he was bald. His cousin, Charlie, took on the plum role of Margo Channing in his adaptation of All About Eve, All About Ed. Most notably, his aunt, Joan, fashioned herself the star of the Haddad Family Theatre and always insisted on having the largest, most interesting role. Haddad describes her as a titanic force of life throughout the cabaret and as its arc unfolds, it becomes clear that Joan was Haddad’s biggest supporter, both during and after the theatre company. It was Joan who came to him and said, “You’ve outgrown us,” and encouraged him to do theatre with people his own age, and with people who knew what they were doing. She nudged him out of the familial pattern and into larger stages. And now he’s at Joe’s Pub.
“Our scene changes were longer than the play itself,” Haddad says. A lot of what unfolds in Haddad’s cabaret hit close to home for me. I, too, was a pushy kid who insisted my sister and cousins and neighborhood kids star in whatever play I cooked up that week. I, too, cast myself as Andy in a male-centric production of Annie. I, too, was loved and supported by a sprawling family who would sit in my room and watch me pop out of countless cardboard boxes singing a Disney song. Falling for Make Believe is a sweet reflection on this spirit of youth and creativity. It made me call my mom.