THEATRE REVIEW: High as Sugar, King’s Head

Paul Gustafson July 29, 2016

High as Sugar is a new one person musical about a loud and proud trans woman living life on the wild side in the art-pop, counter-culture of New York City between 1969 and 1970.


Written and performed by Tanner Efinger, Sugar, the central character, is inspired by the true life 70s trans icon and Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn.

The stiflingly humid night of the show’s London premiere was reminiscent of a typically airless Manhattan summer evening, heightening the experience in the small space. On a set strewn with the discarded clothes and debris of a chaotic bedsit apartment, we find Sugar already in the room. She is apparently drunk, swigging from a bottle of vodka and staggering around trying to find something ‘gorgeous’ to wear for the evening.

The sense of chaos is heightened by Efinger’s use of improvisation, with Sugar flirting and crashing into the audience and asking for help in choosing her outfit. But gradually she settles down enough to begin to tell her story, taking us back to her childhood and to the little boy who saw his first ballet and from that day on wanted to be the Sugar Plumb fairy rather than the Nutcracker Prince.

Sugar recalls her crazy life once she finally makes it to New York City. It’s a brutally honest and unapologetic tale of drugs, sex, booze and failed relationships, as Sugar lives hand to mouth despite being spotted by Andy Warhol and being invited into his bizarre world.

Though much of the play is outrageous and frantic, it’s not without its quieter, tender moments, as when the writing, direction, lighting and styling come together beautifully as Sugar recalls the funeral of her best friend, Penny, who died of an overdose. Penny was born a boy before finding her true self, but in death is heartbreakingly stripped of her persona by her conservative, catholic family, who present her as a young man at her own wake. It’s a beautifully touching part of the show.

The show’s music – three original songs – also provide the space for a more structured and reflective tone. There’s a nice love song to New York City, as well as Sugar’s own theme, reprised throughout the first half, which musically references her obsession with the Sugar Plum Fairy as well as her homely Jewish upbringing in Florida.

Despite all the chaos, Efinger’s powerful central performance connects with the audience and helps bring the show together, and in a twist at the end which blurs the line between performer and character, Efinger speaks directly and powerfully to the audience with a passion, personality and defiance as strong and as moving as the character he has created.

You can catch High as Sugar in Oxford on August 5 at the Old Fire Station.

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THEATRE REVIEW: High as Sugar, King’s Head, London, July 20