Kiki & Herb: Alive On Broadway, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Kiki & Herb: Alive On Broadway

Just Be Nice for Fuck's Sake.--- Ms. Kiki DuRane

Kenny Mellman as Herb and Justin Bond as Kiki in <i>Kiki & Herb Alive on Broadway.</i>
Kenny Mellman as Herb and Justin Bond as Kiki in Kiki & Herb Alive on Broadway. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Kiki & Herb: Alive On Broadway is insidious. And I mean that as a compliment.

The hipster fav duo began their four-week stand at the Helen Hayes this week, returning after a two-year absence from Gotham. Downtown denizens might have seen their act at Here, Fez, and, if one were gainfully employed, at Carnegie Hall, but does the act survive its uptown move intact? With minor quibbles, the answer is YES.

Background for newbies: Kiki & Herb have been trawling the punk-cabaret-queer nightlife circuit before crack became whack. Performers Justin Bond (that's Ms. Kiki DuRane to you) and Kenny Mellman (Herb) sparkle as a pair of over-the-cliff lounge singers -- think Terry Schiavo of the Catskills -- and run with it. As far as Broadway theaters go, the Helen Hayes is a good choice. While I would have preferred Studio 54 for its cabaret seating, this is an intimate red room that lends itself to a spare performance that is disinterested in Lions. And Kings.

Each time I see Kiki & Herb I grow more aware of their timelessness. Or is that timeliness?

A decade ago, their set list would have been an inside joke, covering gawd awful pop tunes and imbuing them with pathos has been done to death. (My friend Madge used to do Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love as sung by Ethel Merman.) Today, mass culture moves faster than a celebrity DUI story. (Exhibit A: Just as Justin Timberlake's single Sexy Back was released in July, there was an instant mashup of the tune with the Ying Yang Twins. Somehow, the copy was more original than its source.)

Justin Bond, who regards himself as transgender, has created Kiki as the epitome of the Outsider. Miss Thing taught Gloria Gaynor how to be a survivor. Kiki's mental health balances on the knife's edge, between craving that Good Housekeeping Seal and getting a Dear John letter. Jack Daniels in hand, her soundtrack oscillates between self-medication and Sylvia Plath extremes.

Certainly, Kiki & Herb have garnered its share of acclaim. At this point their outré act is so well covered that no one bothers to parse their repertoire, which is a fluid fugue of irony and pathos. Alive on Broadway, in particular, seems inspired by that oh-so-sixties aphorism, "The Personal is Political." A lefty who can stand toe to stiletto toe with political satirists Brian Dykstra and Bill Maher, Kiki builds character counter-intuitively, with artifice. While there's rage towards the Pope, Iraq, and all manner of isms and phobias, Kiki takes the pop lyric -- hardly a marker of elitism-- and asks us to consider that millions of listeners can't be wrong.

The show's second encore (yes, Kiki gives and gives until she has blisters) was Kate Bush's Running Up That Hill. Couched in Bush's lush melody and Earth Mother vocals it's easy to miss the punchline. Bringing it up with a few notches, and re-inscribing that the show's stated mission is "Just Be Nice for Fuck's Sake," Kiki intones:

Is there so much hate for the ones we love?
Tell me, we both matter, don't we?

Earlier in the evening, Kiki belted "Let's Go to Bed, the Cure" at its glowering best. And the tune jibes perfectly with Kiki as she demands to be accepted on her own terms. The refrain:

But I don't care if you don't
And I don't feel if you don't
And I don't want it if you don't
And I won't say it
If you don't say it first.

Without fanfare, the sum total of Kiki & Herb's performances form the locus of a new American Songbook. Rather than the feckless abandon of a Cole Porter, the cautious optimism of George Gershwin, Kiki & Herb come out of a generation devastated by AIDS. And they dare not ignore the paradox of a culture that embraces immortality via celebrity worship, even as it occludes our own self-esteem. Post-Boomer, the generation that has anointed ennui as a pop standard has given us songs that are anthems of alienation. Radiohead's Creep is a marker for solipsism. The first half of the ditty mocks our outsize ambitions:

I don't care if it hurts,
I wanna have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul.

The final stanza, as does Kiki herself, strips itself bare:

But I'm a creep,
I'm a weirdo
What the hell am I doin' here?
I don't belong here.

Each of the songs chosen dovetails with Kiki's self-awareness that she is not the girl (or boy) next door, foregrounding the poignancy that was already in the main for Magnetic Fields' "All Over Town":

Maybe somewhere I could be free
Somewhere they won't throw rocks at me
Somewhere this crazy hair
Could be my crown
But all my life
I looked all over town.

While some arrangements, such as "Public Enemy's Don't Believe the Hype" work on paper, but less so in practice, for the most part Kiki is pitch perfect, both in selecting faux-standards as text to articulate her emotional autobiography, and as pure entertainment.

Perhaps over the span of Kiki & Herb's vaunted career they've covered "Is That All There Is?," best known as Peggy Lee's comeback tune by Stoller & Lieber. At face, they are a close match for Kiki:

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball.

And yet. Even as we've tilted rightward politically, the cultural mainstream has veered towards the margins. Up from way Downtown, Kiki stands defiantly, center stage at the Helen Hayes.

"Crazy", this summer's #1 hit, opened the show on the night I attended. The hip hop/neo-soul smash by Gnarl's Barkley's Danger Mouse was a joy to behold as Kiki entered warbling,

I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind. . . 

Amid outbursts declaiming global warming, Mel Gibson, and the new "Nazi"" Pope ("the Devil really does wear Prada"), responding to the foiled terrorist plot by suggesting to Homeland Security that they really "don't want to see me without a sports beverage," and using song as scaffolding, Kiki's doing more than alterna-lounge. She's speaking volumes.

Finally, attention must be paid to Kenny Mellman's Herb. He is the safety net that allows Justin Bond to perform on the High Wire. As Herb the "retard," Mellman defers to Kiki onstage, but he completes the illusion of Kiki & Herb. The set design of Alive On Broadway is deceptively simple. In a style that might be called faux-naturalism, Scott Pask (Pillowman, Lieutenant of Inishmore) gives us an oversize frond flanking Herb and his upright, while Kiki has a tree stump serve as both a bar stool and a drink caddy. An Inconvenient Truth, indeed.

Editor's Note: For a review of Kiki and Herb's outing at the Cherry Lane, go here.

Kiki & Herb: Alive On Broadway
Created and Executed by Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman
Lighting design by Jeff Croiter
Set design by Scott Pask
Costume design by Marc Happel
Sound Design by Brett Jarvis
Running time: 2 and a half hours with intermission

Performances are Tuesdays at 7:00pm; Wednesday through Friday at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 pm.
From 8/11/06 to 9/10/06; opening 8/15/06
Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street
Tickets top off at $88. They can be purchased through Telecharge at 212 239-6200 or online at Two and a half hours before curtain there is a lottery for $25.00 front row seats.
Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on an August 12th preview performance.

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