I saw *Kiki and Herb SLEIGH at BAM* on December 2, 2021. Kiki and Herb are sort of a parody of a cabaret duo, the creation of singer Justin Vivian Bond and pianist Kenny Mellman. I'd seen the two of them just once before, sometime around 2004. They were a riot, wacky and a little combative. Here's a great example of their work from that period, a music video of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" from 2006:
I don't know much about Mellman, I only know him as Herb. JVB went on to become a solo artist and I saw them many times at Joe's Pub, the Skirball Center, and best of all, in a Carpenters tribute at Lincoln Center. It's been fascinating watching JVB develop as an artist. Their act became more about the material and less about the personality, though there will always be plenty of personality. The act often felt under-rehearsed and deliberately loose and messy. I really do think this was a choice and not just sloppiness.
I feel like the Carpenters show marked a turning point. Their performance in that show had unprecedented depth, even reverence. There was still a fair amount of acerbic commentary but it was coupled with genuine love and warmth. I saw JVB in a show with Anthony Roth Costanzo this fall, and in that show they found a new sense of poise, quiet grace, and composure. I'm not saying JVB had become Leontyne Price but the presentational style was much more assured than in previous outings.
The audience at BAM was about 70% gay men north of 50. Many hugs in the aisles as people got seated, I think it had been a while since these guys had seen each other. Understandable.
Mellman entered first to screams from the audience. He wore a red and bronze sequined jacket, black trousers, and red socks with no shoes. I don't remember the shirt. His hair was sprayed gray and he had deliberately cheesy-looking old-age makeup. Kiki and Herb are supposed to be in their 90s and the actual performers are probably only in their 50s. Actually, judging from this photo they were both wearing cheesey-looking old-age makeup:
JVB as Kiki came onstage and the audience went MENTAL. I never saw Montserrat Caballé in recital but I imagine this is what the audience was like. Screaming, unbridled adoration, frequent standing ovations. The behavior of the audience was a performance in itself. JVB as Kiki was wild in a way that I hadn't seen in a while - - little of the polish and grace I had seen recently, but then it made sense because Kiki is her own lady. BTW JVB uses the pronoun "they" but when they're playing Kiki I'm going to use the pronoun "she," since I'm talking about the character and not the performer.
One of the joys of Kiki and Herb is the medleys - - both the songs they choose to do and the way they stitch them together. The show opened with a medley of "I Was Made For Loving You Baby" (by Kiss), "I'm Gonna Kiss You All Over" (by Exile), and "Feels Like the First Time" (by Foreigner). These songs collectively were about the thrill of performing in front of an audience after a year and a half of lockdown.
Next, a holiday-centric medley: "Sleigh Ride," "Make Yourself Comfortable" (not really a holiday song, but why split hairs), and a jazzy "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," culminating with Kiki doing a re-enactment of Mary giving birth to the baby. She pulled the imaginary baby out of her hoo ha, cradled it in her arms, and said, snidely, "Jesus CHRIST." Stopped the show.
Kiki had a little monologue about World AIDS Day, which had been the day before. "Everyone I ever liked died of AIDS. I'm mean, YOU'RE okay, but... You know what you're like better than I do." She told a long, hilarious story of a man she had dated in the 50s, a "Santa impersonator." "He was Santa year round. He was Santa-identified, Santa-adjacent." She talked about the joy of being Santa's girlfriend during the holidays but how they would get weird looks from people at other times of the year.
She sang "The Boys in the Backroom," which made the heart of this Dietrich junkie sing with joy. This song incongruously led to "Frosty the Snowman." She took a long slug of her drink and said, "You want her to run, you gotta gas her up!"
The funniest story of the night was about Sylvia Plath. "I wouldn't call her a barrel of laughs but she was a fun girl. I think she was a frustrated showgirl. But you know really, what's the difference between a showgirl and a poet? A poet is a showgirl who is lacking in oomph. You know how she died, but I can tell you, that was not the first time she put her head in the oven. That was a standard thing for her. One day I went into the kitchen to make some popcorn - - you kids might not know this, but before the age of the microwave, we had to make popcorn on the stove. Anyway, I wanted to make some popcorn but Sylvia was in the way. I had to tell her to put her head in the oven another time, I needed to use the stove. The appliances change but the desire for popcorn remains the same."
She sang "River" by Joni Mitchell, which was unbearably touching. "I wish I had a river I could skate away on." Not really a holiday song but a winter song, definitely. She left the stage so she could change her dress. I should say she started the show in a paisley satin number with a single shoulder strap. This dress showed off her somewhat saggy boobies, which I think were augmented for this show. Her second dress was a red sparkly number, partnered with a tremendous, opulent red feather boa. That girl can work a boa, I'm here to tell you.
She talked about how she and Herb met, in an orphanage, a "children's institutional." She said that Herb was one of the great loves of her life. She sang "I'm Gonna Keep On Loving You" (by REO Speedwagon) and dedicated it to Herb. It was slightly ridiculous but also profoundly moving. A Kiki and Herb specialty.
She told a long, funny story about a cow that was over 2,000 years old. It had been in the stable at the birth of Jesus. No one was paying attention and the cow was hungry so she ate a piece of Jesus's afterbirth and miraculously attained eternal life. She was alive for a few hundred years when she was sent to Rome and became part of the whole Catholic show. As Kiki said, "An indentured show cow in the service of the Pope." Kiki liberated the cow and brought her on the road.
They sort of ended the show with "Stairway To Heaven." Something went off kilter with the microphone so Kiki sang the last phrases "unplugged," which inspired lots of intense screaming from the audience.
I said they sort of ended the show, because of course, like with any grand diva, there were encores. Miss Caballé was known to do eight or ten encores! Their first encore got a delighted gasp from the audience: "Send In the Clowns." Sondheim had just died a few days before, so this was especially meaningful. Kiki sang it with delicacy and intense feeling, I will never hear a greater performance of that song. The show ended with a more up-tempo number, a song I didn't know, a sort of mawkish saloon Christmas ballad. Why not.
[Photo by Richard Termine courtesy of the BAM Press Office]