Many Armenian works of art tend to focus on our history, politics and unique aspects of Armenian culture. In the new musical Dear Mom, I’m Gay with book and lyrics by David Dilsizian, audiences are introduced to a refreshing and rare story of a young Armenian man’s coming out experience.
The story centers around Dan Sarkisian, who moves to New York City and begins to explore his sexuality. He attends college to study fashion design and moves in with a female roommate, Shauna, which already causes his mother discomfort. After falling in love with another man, Steve, he decides it might be time to come out to his religious mother. The musical explores relationships between mothers and their children and unpacks the question: is a mother’s love more powerful than religion or culture? Shauna, for her part, must grapple with her own fears of letting her mother down as she battles terminal cancer, while Steve works to love and accept his eccentric “liberal Jewish” mother from NYC.
An off-off Broadway production of this show was staged in a black box theater at The Producers Club in NYC on November 19. In the theater, there was a beautiful and rare intersection of Armenians, musical theater lovers and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Some audience members belonged to one group, while others found home in multiple.
The cast featured Michael Cagnetta as Dan Sarkisian, Rebekah Rawhouser as Mrs. Sarkisian, Abby Goldberg as Shauna Atkins, Carla Mongado as Mrs. Atkins, Dean Tyler K as Steve Greenberg, Sarah Vishnev as Mrs. Greenburg, Ellie Jay McKee as Nurse Beatrice, and understudies Rachelle Lohrer, Ross Coughlin, Marques Furr and Tirza Meuljic. The live music instrumentation included Hannah Burke on cello and Dilsizian on keyboard, ukulele and accordion.
The cast learned the entire show in a six-day rehearsal period. The actors were perfectly cast in their roles and provided deep honesty, vulnerability and care in their performances while maintaining excellent vocals. There are many powerful ballads in the show, often performed by the character of Dan. Cagnetta immediately drew in audiences not only with his vocal ease and honest performance, but with his physicality and specific acting choices that incorporated well-timed moments of stillness. Goldberg masterfully crafted Shauna with her tough and humorous exterior that later melts into vulnerability. Cagnettta and Dean Tyler K melted hearts with their on-stage chemistry and vocal blending during their duets. The actors portraying the mothers were able to capture the complexity and variety of motherhood. Rawhouser’s rich alto resonance provided depth to Mrs. Sarkisian’s internal conflict; Mongado was tender and powerful as Mrs. Atkins grieves the declines in her health and the impact on Shauna; and Vishnev had impeccable and highly important comedic timing while singing about Hanukkah.
There were three shows that came to mind during this performance: Dear Evan Hansen, Fun Home and A Strange Loop (with a brief nod to Rent in a scene where the three mothers are all trying to contact their children). Dilsizian is skillful at writing a heartfelt and ethereal musical theater ballad, and it was clear that much of his influence has come from the modern day coming-of-age pop musical. In an interview with the Weekly, Dilsizian revealed that he had done a workshop about writing musicals with Dear Evan Hansen composers Pasek and Paul, who encouraged him to pursue telling this story. Much of the music focuses on character development; inner emotions are revealed in soliloquy style, rather than large group numbers. A few upbeat and humorous songs provide much-needed moments of comic relief in an otherwise gut-wrenching piece.
In the wake of the recent suicides of Arsen and Tigran in Armenia and the mass shooting at a gay club in Colorado Springs, this piece could not be more relevant. Dilsizian began writing the show four years ago. He first wrote the songs and did a concert version with his friends and received an overwhelmingly positive response that motivated him to write a full script. It was originally designed to be a general coming out story, but after workshopping, the script became closer to representing Dilsizian’s personal experiences.
Dilsizian is originally from a small town in Pennsylvania where his father was the pastor of his church. “You’ll notice my dad is absent from this play, because my dad is a very stereotypical masculine Armenian man. He never came around,” said Dilsizian. “I think especially with Armenian men, there’s this expectation that we have to be super masculine, and we have to be in these little boxes. And unfortunately, if you don’t fit in that box, a lot of times from the Armenian community, you’re not accepted. And I think that’s really sad.”
Dilsizian expressed immense gratitude for the turnout of Armenians at this show, who comprised about half the audience at each of the two performances. This reception confirmed that although much work still needs to be done to foster a community of love, acceptance and tenderness, there is also support and people willing and ready to construct those spaces.
Dear Mom, I’m Gay deserves a true off-Broadway run, which would be a blessing for the intersection of Armenian, LGBTQ+ and musical theater communities. It would be a truly unique experience for Diasporan Armenians to see themselves in a mainstream show, tackling new and different issues of identity, in a completely new style of music that is accessible to a wider audience than the typical Armenian play.
Dilsizian’s dream is to have an off-Broadway run of the show. He currently resides in Michigan in an area known as the “Bible Belt” of the state. At the beginning of the show, he shared that there are many young people in his community, including teenagers, who are kicked out of their homes and left with nothing due to their sexual orientation. That’s what inspired Dilsizian to design “I See You” bracelets, which have raised funds for GIFT (Gays in Faith Together), a local organization that provides resources for young people ostracized from their communities. If you would like to support Dilsizian’s journey or provide financial backing for the show, he can be contacted at email@example.com.