Across from a Home Depot and eight miles from the nearest Hooters, the first musical about the history of breast implants held a staged reading at the Dallas Children’s Theater, because why not? cleaVage: the front story is an ambitious, homegrown labor of love in a city that has rarely been accused of supporting local artists (ask St. Vincent), but the black-box theater was packed that breezy Sunday at 7 p.m., March 19, with an audience of about 175 dotted with jean jackets and Warby Parkers and small plastic cups of red wine.
“This is not a kid’s show,” producer-director Rebecca Lowrey explained to the crowd, hoping to ease any confusion about the unconventional venue. Lowrey is an effervescent presence, a Dallas theater fixture and minor TikTok star who has championed the quirky musical, with book and lyrics written by top plastic surgeon Dr. Ron Friedman with help from co-librettist Laura Goodenow. Lowrey then took a seat at a Roland piano, signaling the launch of the action with a few jaunty notes, but the piano continued playing as she paused to adjust her own cleavage, a winning sight gag that set the tone for the next two hours. cleaVage may be educational, a surprisingly insightful take on a little-known but highly influential part of Texas history, but it does not take itself too seriously. The musical is something precious in these troubled times: silly as hell.
The story tracks the rise and fall of the silicone gel implant, from its humble beginnings at Baylor University College of Medicine to white-hot status symbol to eventual subject of lawsuits and federal bans and, ultimately, a safer reemergence in the twenty-first century. Our protagonists are based on real-life surgeons Tom Cronin and Frank Gerow, who invented silicone implants in Houston in 1962. Dr. Conan (Brian Hathaway) dreams of his legacy, while Dr. Rousseau (Josh Kumler) cuts a more empathic figure. The first implants went to, true story, a dog named Esmeralda. This wild saga is about “70 percent true, 30 percent made-up,” according to Dr. Friedman, who told me he borrowed details from scientific studies and stories such as Mimi Swartz’s 1995 “Silicone City” in Texas Monthly, about how breast implants shaped Houston’s economy. But the fictional parts mostly pertain to the love story (it’s a musical, after all), while the eye-popping moments are often authentic. The first human recipient of silicone implants was a divorced mother of six named Timmie Jean Lindsey, here renamed Tammy Brie (Brett Warner), who arrived at the doctor’s office hoping to get rose tattoos removed and left with a full C cup. (Now 91 and living in Baytown, Texas, according to a press release, Lindsey is still rocking those knockers.)
The ability to change your figure—and thus your future—was a deliciously novel concept in an era defined by Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Playboy. As feminism clashed against the sexual revolution through the seventies and eighties, plastic surgery became a fascinating wrinkle in the story of women’s self-determination. Was it antifeminist to surgically alter your body, or deeply feminist? Different generations came to different conclusions, as Anna Nicole Smith gave way to Kim Kardashian. cleaVage concludes with a trans patient (KJ James), who was assigned male at birth and dreams of womanhood. It’s another beginning for a twisty saga that has included vast profits and million-dollar settlements, both scorn and praise for a procedure that can be seen as improving or degrading the female form, depending on whom you ask. The crowd erupted in applause during a protest for silicone implants where performers held signs that read, “My body, my choice” and “Listen to women!!” But that kind of sloganeering dodges the most complicated question in feminism: which woman, on which subject? Half the world’s population can’t possibly be expected to agree—not on plastic surgery, and not on much of anything, including (more recently) the very definition of woman.
cleaVage deftly avoids such culture-war traps, preferring to luxuriate in goofy puns and toe-tapping harmony. “My melons are gone, and I feel so melancholy” is a typical line, though it sounds better sung. Dr. Friedman has been composing since age ten and currently writes music for his temple choir in Plano as well as playing keyboard in a sixties and seventies cover band, according to a recent profile in D Magazine, the same magazine that has recognized him as a Best Doctor in Dallas for seventeen years. (“I didn’t buy the feature, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said to me, though I wasn’t actually asking that.) Apparently Friedman’s skill with the scalpel is only rivaled by his commitment to a dad joke: “Bringing the world together, two breasts at a time” is a line that could also serve as the musical’s subhead. (“The Front Story” needs workshopping, at any rate. What does it even mean?)
The show is far from perfect, as any staged reading would suggest. The romance storyline (between Dr. Rousseau and a patient dealing with breast cancer) comes too late and happens too fast, and there’s little sense of time passing. Suddenly 1962 becomes 1980-something. But the musical is exuberant, fun, and, although the reading was only staged, performers like Jason Philip Solis, as a Dow Corning executive (among other parts), and Jovane Alejandro Caamaño as a scheming French surgeon wiss uhn outraaageous accent, made me long to see cleaVage get a full-frontal treatment. Perhaps it will shimmy its way onto the roster at Dallas Theater Center or (dare we dream?) the stages of Las Vegas, the only town that might celebrate big boobs more than the Big D.
I came away believing that Friedman was a rare talent in Dallas, a surgeon with an artist’s heart (though plastic surgery may involve more art than I realize). I ran into him in the hallway during intermission, where he was dressed in a designer button-down with chic glasses perched on a taut face of indeterminate age. (He’s 56.) He hatched the idea for cleaVage after seeing Hamilton in 2019. The playful mix of history, personal drama, and courtroom battle—as well as showstoppers, ballads, and the occasional rap—is indeed very much like that epic musical, though I hadn’t noticed it until Friedman tipped his hand.
“It’s Hamilton with breasts!” he said, looking pleased with himself, as he should be. “Hamilton With Breasts” turns out to make for a very enjoyable, very original, and very Dallas night of musical theater. And of all the inspiration one might take from Lin Manuel-Miranda’s iconic show, I think we can all agree: “more cleavage” is a pretty good note.