The 2006 Broadway season got off to a shrieking start at the Helen Hayes Theatre last night as "Kiki & Herb Alive on Broadway," an edgy downtown experience gone uptown, opened for a quickie run through Sept. 10.
Fans, and there are plenty of them, know the drill. But if you've missed the duo's past performances in clubs, Off Broadway and Carnegie Hall, a quick catch-up: Justin Bond, 40ish, in drag and blond wig, plays Kiki, a boozy chanteuse. Kenny Mellman, who's in his late 30s, plays Herb, her gay accompanist. These are seventy-something loser lounge lizards who've worked their act off for half a century. While on stage, lines on their faces, streaked like war paint and not meant to look real, reveal that time hasn't been gentle.
"Alive on Broadway" isn't mellow, either. It's shrill, delirious and demented. It's mostly made up of Kiki wailing songs, weaving tales and swilling whisky ("Time to make Mama pretty," she says, clutching a bottle of Canadian Club), as Herb plays piano (he's pretty good) and brays backups.
Enjoyment level largely depends on how keen you are on Kiki, who has few restrained moments. More often, she's in ranting and ear-splitting mode, whether covering "Take Your Mama Out" by the Scissor Sisters, "Don't Believe the Hype" by Public Enemy, "One Tin Soldier" or virtually any title from their odd-lot song list.
Kiki's between-songs banter, which, to Bond's credit, is slyly hypnotic, can prompt gagging or laughter or both. Per usual, Kiki rambles about her youth ("If you weren't molested as a child," she says, "you must have been an ugly kid") and failed marriages, and she spills about whatever else strikes her - from gay men adopting white babies as status symbols to ripped-from-headline bottle bombers and airport security. "Me without my 'sports drink'?" she muses. "They don't know terror!"
Scott Pask's glittery set - a leaf the size of a band shell and a tall gangly-limbed tree stump doubling as a stool and a minibar - is as Dali-esque as Kiki and Herb themselves. Jeff Croiter's lighting is vivid and dynamic. Marc Happel's costumes are a kick, especially Kiki's spin-art patterned pants suit ensemble that screams 1970s.
At 140 minutes, with intermission, the show goes on too long. A director (there's none listed on the Playbill) might have edited. As it stands, "Alive on Broadway" is, like Kiki's liver, bloated - even if die-hard devotees never wanted the show to end.
They’re not dead yet. Far, far from it.
Still, when two years ago you an nounce your farewell concert - at Carnegie Hall, no less - and call it "Kiki & Herb Will Die For You," it sounds like the long goodbye, and there is nothing left for fans but tears and a quest for closure.
But last night at the Helen Hayes Theatre, Justin Bond (Kiki) and Kenny Mellman (Herb), superlative actors and musicians both, resuscitated their lounge-act extraordinaire under the defiant title of "Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway."
Alive, and we might add, well! Very well, indeed. But on dear old conventional Broadway? Here could be the rub.
This is not a show for everyone. If you live anywhere in the New York area, fine. But although it's quintessential showbiz, I doubt whether Kiki and Herb would play well in Peoria.
The show itself is part cabaret act, part musical, but most of all it's a play. Bond and Mellman have, it seems, been absorbed by the other reality of Kiki and Herb so that by now - and they have been in business as this duo for 13 years - their performance becomes a kind of weird documentary.
The audience gets to meet this sleazy, woozy cabaret act, less a tour de force than a force de tour, with Kiki as the sloshed chantooze with an age so certain that her face wears it like a birth certificate, and the blankly smiling Herb, as her quietly nutty accompanist.
During the course of the performance, they steadily drink Canadian Club as the evening shipwrecks itself on the wilder shores of life and show business.
Kiki's enunciation gets more and more slurred (but always bitterly intelligible), while Herb's playing crashes out like an avant-gardist gone berserk but still momentarily recalling Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Kander or even Philip Glass.
The show - "created and executed" by Bond and Mellman, with no director intervening - provides Kiki and Herb's full biographical paraphernalia for those who are coming fresh to the act.
Apart from the biography, the text is crammed with political satire - Kiki is not a Bush type - and with a drunken, sometimes savage political incorrectness.
Bond's drag-queen regality suggests Dame Edna on speed and talent, but there is a blackness to the humor - "I know my father loved me because he told me, if you weren't abused as a child you must have been an ugly kid." Shocking? Sure, and there is plenty more.
Good taste is not on the menu. The targets range from Mel Gibson to the pope - perhaps that's no great extension - and Kiki spiralingly ad-libs from gay marriage (their core audience is pink-tinged) to the loneliness of sexy fat women.
Herb's music is fantastic - it's basically reinventions of rock, pop, hip-hop and hiccup styles all fused together - a stream of musical consciousness.
The encore finale - stay in your seat at the end - is a wondrous vampire anthem embracing all bases, from Elton John to Stephen Sondheim.
Of course, the milk of inhuman kindness has curdled in Kiki's prosthetic breasts, and Herb constantly verges on manic insanity - yet, strange but true, with their souls intact, they emerge as essentially nice people, even if, unlike Barbra, they are the kind of nice people who don't need nice people.
That's one gorgeous set of teardrops that the immortal Kiki DuRane is wearing for her mind-popping Broadway debut. Kiki, a molting songbird for all seasons, and Herb, her happily suffering shadow and accompanist, opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater in "Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway," a hyper-magnified cabaret conceit that has the heat and dazzle of great balls of fire.
Actually, since this transcendental lounge act is fond of biblical imagery, make that great swords of fire - or, if you prefer, a burning bush.
But about those teardrops. Whenever Kiki tilts her face upward, toward her key light - and like any self-adoring goddess, she does that a lot - her eyes brim with the most brilliant pools of brine you have ever seen. Well, not to spoil the illusion, but those ain't tears: they're rhinestones (or something like), strategically glued just beneath her lower lashes.
It is a tribute to the perverse showbiz genius of Kiki and Herb that once you twig on to this shameless trompe l'oeil, you don't feel merely amused. Nor do you think that the singer has been trading only in paper-moon emotions, or making fun of those who do, as she croons her whiskey-pickled way through bathetic ballads and angry anthems.
Those artificial tears are a comic grace note, sure, but they are also a totem for feelings of devastating depth and substance. And a performance that should, by rights, be just a night of imitative song and shtick from another pair of happy high-campers from the alternative club scene becomes irresistibly full-bodied art.
Fakery is often more real than reality in the glamorous and tawdry world of theater. I should probably state, for the uninitiated, that the ultrawomanly Kiki is channeled by a man named Justin Bond. Herb is the alter ego of a truly inspired pop musicologist named Kenny Mellman.
And while Kiki and Herb claim to be as old as the hills, Mr. Bond and Mr. Mellman are only in their 40's and 30's, respectively. The roadmaps of geriatric lines on their faces have been drawn with the blunt bogusness of children portraying grandparents in a school play. And by the way, Kiki and Herb now say the reason they didn't die, as they had promised, after their farewell concert at Carnegie Hall in 2004 is that they can't. The reasons are complicated, but let's just say they involve their having been present at the birth of Jesus.
Believe it or not, that makes sense. In their decade as one of downtown's savviest acts, Kiki and Herb have always traded on the reassuring illusion of immortality conferred by deeply stylish cabaret performers of advanced age.
You know, the kind you stumble upon after midnight, improbably drawing oxygen from smoky tunes and smoky rooms in bars found everywhere from the inns Ramada to the hotels Carlyle and Algonquin. When Kiki sings - and her numbers go from Eisenhower-era velvet ("Make Yourself Comfortable") to punk-era tarpaper (the Cure's "Let's Go to Bed") - she suggests some wondrous hybrid of Marianne Faithfull, Elaine Stritch, Patti Smith and Kitty Carlisle Hart. As with those very different women, the point is never the prettiness of the voice but the history behind it and the passion to endure that vibrates within.
There is also the vibrato (real or metaphoric) of suffering, that public overdose of private pain that made Judy Garland a figure of such religious adoration. The references to Jesus in Kiki's spiels aren't inappropriate, since Mr. Bond and Mr. Mellman appreciate the role ofthe self-lacerating performer who cathartically embodies the anguish of his audience. ("Kiki and Herb Will Die for You" is the title of their last CD, a recording of their Carnegie Hall concert.)
Between songs, Kiki describes her early history with an uncaring mother and abusive father ("I always said if you weren't molested as a child, you must have been an ugly kid"); her childhood in a Pennsylvania orphanage, where she met Herb, a gay Jewish foundling; the seesaw career of high and low living, institutionalizations and shifting musical fashions; and the death of her little daughter, Coco, which Kiki describes while staring into the murky depths of her glass of Canadian Club.
Famous names are tossed into the swirling mix. Kiki danced in burlesque nightclubs with Maya Angelou; she and Herb were supposed to have performed the theme song for Mel Gibson's Holocaust series on television (until his arrest for drunk driving put an end to the project; world leaders (you can imagine which ones) are gutted, roasted and fried.
This sounds like regulation tacky countercultural standup, laced with the overemotional kitsch that drag queens borrow from old movies, right? That sensibility is certainly evoked by Scott Pask's set - a bizarre sylvan landscape that suggests Salvador Dali working in Las Vegas and includes a blasted tree that Kiki perches on to sing (and drink) - and Marc Happel's Loretta Young-meets-Cher costumes.
But like most of the best artists of their generation, Mr. Bond and Mr. Mellman have tunneled under the ironic distance that seems to have been their birthright to reclaim the passion beneath the pose. The musical stylings of Herb (whose liquidly bobbing head and blissed-out expression suggest that his nervous system is located in the strings of his piano) and the vocals of Kiki are radioactive with an angry sorrow, ecstasy and cosmic fatigue so profound that it turns into cosmic punch-drunkenness. They use the surface of camp as a tool for detonating surfaces. (Bette Midler surprised and seduced audiences with just such a style as a singer at gay clubs 30-some years ago.)
It's a musical approach that finds a common denominator in songs made famous by artists like Public Enemy (quaintly presented as an example of folk music) and the Scissors Sisters and sentimental narratives like "One Tin Soldier" and Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne." And who else would segue from the masochistic power ballad "Total Eclipse of the Heart" into a musical setting of William Butler Yeats's "Second Coming"?
If the idea of the end of the world keeps creeping into the show, that's appropriate to these times, isn't it? But Kiki and Herb have been around long enough to know that the threat of doomsday is old news and that life - dammit all- goes on.
At one point Kiki looks into the audience and wonders who on earth is out there. This is Broadway, after all, the place where tourists come from around the country with their families to be entertained. "Do any of you have a family?" she asks of the crowd and concludes that this must be an audience of foundlings.
Maybe. But remember that the subtitle of the show, which runs only through Sept. 10, is "Alive on Broadway," not merely "Live." Though they may disappear when the lights go down, and the makeup comes off, Kiki and Herb onstage are Alive with a capital A, with all the human vitality and fallibility that that implies. This is more than can be said for the synthetically enhanced automatons appearing in most Broadway musicals.
Sometimes, you really can get too much of a good thing.
Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman have delighted fans for years with their postmodern cabaret/drag act. Bond plays Kiki, a brassy, blowsy female entertainer of a certain age.
Mellman Is Herb, Kiki's gay accompanist, who indulges her eclectic and sometimes questionable taste in repertoire.
In Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway, which opened Tuesday at the Helen Hayes Theatre. the duo brings its genre-bending, gender-blending shtick to Manhattan's tourist center.
And If you think that schtick is safe for matinee crowds, well, either you don't know Kiki, or you've been drinking some of the same stuff she drinks, in similar quantities.
Bond's chanteuse requires a little liquid refreshment early in her set and by the middle is so plastered that she's slurring observations about Jesus, a stuffed cow and pretty much every maligned minority group you could squeeze into a stand-up routine. Then there's her song selection, which reads like a primer on tragically hip alternative pop with a little Dan Fogelberg thrown in to appease more pedestrian theatergoers.
The resulting program suggests what might happen if Dame Edna's dysfunctional sister showed up as a guest VJ on MTV2 but decided that rather than playing videos, she would sing the tracks herself.
It's a premise that could make for a great comedy skit, and Bond certainly has the timing and dexterity to pull it off, but not for more than two hours.
Much as I enjoyed most of the first half of Alive on Broadway. I had the sinking feeling I might remember the experience more fondly If I left during Intermission. I didn't, so I had to watch Bond's repartee with the more subdued Mel/man grow thinner, although Mellman showed spurts of comical animation.
In the first act, a few politically incorrect jokes didn't quite work - not because they were offensive, but because they weren't funny. But Bond delivered them with overwhelming panache. Later, some quips took on a whiff of preaching to the choir, as if to remind the faithful of the social conscience underlying Kiki and Herb's irreverent antics.
As for the musical numbers, no matter how you feel about Bright Eyes, Scissor Sisters or any of the other critical darlings represented here, chances are you could happily live out your life without hearing their tunes crooned by a hybrid of Ethel Merman and Liza Minnelli.
Not that Kiki isn't a swell gal to spend a little time with. But if you want to see a sassy older gal with great legs sing and tell lakes, I'd suggest waiting for Elaine Stritch's next show.
The last time we saw supposedly septuagenarian lounge lizards Kiki & Herb, in their Carnegie Hall farewell two years ago, part of the duo's unusual pact with the venue was that they'd die soon after the final note was played. But like any showbiz trooper who keeps returning from the brink - Jason in "Friday the 13th," Cher, Streisand -- the club veterans have clawed their way back from beyond only to land at the Helen Hayes Theater with their edgy, winning revue, "Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway."
For those unfortunates who've never caught Justin Bond as Kiki -- a onetime burlesque dancer and mother of three who "kicked cancer with a case of vodka and an electric blanket," as she explains here -- and Kenny Mellman as her devoted pianist Herb on the cabaret circuit, the fun is watching the act devolve into chaos as Kiki knocks back an ocean of Canadian Club.
The premise of a boozy drag queen and her sidekick pretending to be showbiz wash-ups may not seem too novel. But that's just the jumping-off point for Bond and Mellman, who transcend camp to wildly jerk their act like a funhouse car through overt shtick, topical humor, emotional revelations and, ultimately, surreal artiness. It's cabaret for punk rockers: When Kiki barks at the audience, "Kiki loves you," it sounds less a term of endearment than a rageful threat. And when she drunkenly loses her place in songs, any customary, uncomfortable la-di-da's are Instead replaced with clenched, staccato growls -- as if she's livid at those damned words for having escaped her besotted, aging mind.
Rather than simply working up familiar tunes as cheesy lounge fare, Bond and Mellman play covers that can stump the most devout music snob, creating a Kiki canon out of obscure indie rock, rap and '70s MOR radio.
One big question for the duo was whether Broadway would quash their exhilarating edge. After all, it's hard to imagine Kiki even waking up in time for a matinee. And the Helen Hayes, while intimate, isn't exactly a place where Bond can teeter on cocktail tables In heels and fall face down into the lap of an audience member, as he did while testing out material for this show at Joe's Pub recently.
Then again, such hijinks at times have made Kiki & Herb's club shows sloppy, hit-or-miss affairs. Instead, the rigors of rehearsals and daily perfs have obviously sharpened the performance. With "Alive" down cold, Bond and Mellman, not having to worry about flubbing songs, and seemingly sticking closer to the script than usual, are able to wring each zinger and lyric for big laughs while also registering some truly poignant moments.
More than cartoon creations, Kiki & Herb become very much alive over the course of this show. (So alive, In fact, that they reveal during the evening that they are actually Immortals named Naomi & Ishkabibble, present at the birth of Jesus.)
The quotient of timely -- and particularly politically incorrect humor has been upped. Between numbers ranging from Public Enemy's "Don't Believe the Hype," Introduced as a "a folk song," to the Cure's "Let's Go to Bed," which from gravel-voiced Kiki sounds like a command rather than a suggestion, the chanteuse takes aim at Mel Gibson ("now he wants the Jews to treat him like they're Christian"), gay marriage (they should have the right to be as miserable as she was), the pope ("the devil really does wear Prada") and all things Bush-Ian ("It was just Bush's birthday. He is a Cancer").
Some of Kiki's best chestnuts, however, are recycled from previous shows. "If you weren't molested as a child, you must've been an ugly kid," she quips, and one wonders what tourists may think if they unwittingly stumble Into "Alive" to hear Kiki tell them Jesus was black, America Is under apartheid, the Catholic Church is run by Nazis, Maya Angelou was once a go-go dancer and Herb is a "gay Jew-tard."
But the best material comes when Bond steps off his soapbox and runs through Kiki & Herb's biographies, which set up each song.
One particular highlight is when Kiki talks about her children -- in "Mommie Dearest" mode -- including Coco, who drowned on the French Riviera In the '60s when Kiki "couldn't swim fast enough" to save her.
There's also estranged gay son Bradford and Kiki’s youngest, Miss D, a biracial daughter taken away by child services, now In her 20s and living in Delaware. Not realizing how far Delaware is, Kiki takes a taxi from Manhattan, tracking down Miss D in a supermarket; like any concerned mother, she will do anything to reach her daughter (''There's other ways to pay for cab fare," she says between slurps of booze).
This leads into a rendition of Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne," which leaves you with a lump In your throat as Bond allows his voice to sweetly rise above Kiki's gravel-pit register. But Bond always undercuts any sentimentality: "I will try to manufacture some genuine emotion."
The idea of seeing Kiki in a room with no bar seems just plain wrong, and initially, it's an odd sight when the curtain comes up to reveal a grand piano and a giant leaf, covered in dusky glitter like a relic from the Rainbow Room, on one side of the stage, with a gnarled dead tree trunk on the other, like a leftover from "The Lord of the Rings" musical.
But this juxtaposition of the showy and the grotesque In Scott Pask's set suits the evening's themes, and Kiki alternately uses her tree as a stool, a perch, a dance partner and a hiding place for her beloved bottle of Canadian Club. Kiki's schlepplng up and down the tree becomes more difficult, and amusing, as the evening progresses and she gets more sloshed.The song selection here will delight hipsters as the duo bulldoze through tunes by Gnarls Barkley ("Crazy"), Radiohead ("Creep"), the Scissor Sisters ("Take Your Mama Out"), Bright Eyes ("First Day of My Life") and Elliot Smith ("King's Crossing").
In Kiki & Herb's hands, cheesy Lite FM like Alphaville's "Forever Young" is strangely prescient, and the Mountain Goats' bleak "No Children" becomes their own anthem.
As with any lounge act, the duo's flaw is that they don't always know quite when to exit -- and with no credited director aboard, the show is allowed to ramble at times. One outrageous encore of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"-with Kiki giving a Mephistophelean emphasis to the lyric "now there's only love in the dark" -- would have done the trick. But the duo came back for another, Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill," making for a little too much of a good thing.