Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Kiki and Herb: Mixed up on Broadway

Weirdly mixed feelings about Kiki and Herb's new Broadway show. Or should I say "new"? Fans of the dynamic duo (played by Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman) will be familiar with a fairly large portion of Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Part of K&H's appeal derives from familiarity with their backstory. Back in the downtown days, it would be randomly revealed over the course of various performances: One night you'd get a story about the tragic death of Kiki's daughter, Coco; another you'd learn about about why Kiki's other daughter, Miss D, had to be placed with social services; on yet another, there may be some long-winded reminiscence about cavorting with celebrities in Swinging London, or about one of the duo's half-forgotten, misguided albums. The K&H shows were about the balance between CC and ginger–fueled trips down memory lane (emphasis on trips) and the disheveled, hysterical performance of pop and rock nuggets, some of them stretched to absurd lengths and interspersed with flotsam and jetsam popping to the surface of Kiki's brain with Tourette's-like randomness. At one point I was so obsessed with Kiki and Herb that I went to see them almost every week.

For their Broadway debut, K&H blend new selections (Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," Scissor Sisters' "Take Your Mama") with some of their tried-and-true hits ("Total Eclipse of the Heart," introduced as part of the Broadway songbook, which is technically true since it was in Jim Steinman's dreadful Dance of the Vampires; Daniel Johnston's "Walking the Cow," as usual paired with the anecdote about Kiki's cow Daisy eating Jesus' afterbirth). The banter similarly incorporates familiar anecdotes (Kiki meeting Herb for the first time) and new material, including a heavy-handed pro-gay-marriage paean in the second act that doesn't feel very Kiki at all.

And my question here is: Why not a brand-new show? If you're going to be on Broadway, why not expand the K&H experience? After all, the kind of washed-up cabaret duo created by Bond and Mellman would have jumped on the opportunity to go overboard, to hire some dancing boys and girls and jump headfirst into Great White Way vulgarity. I guess the rationale is to expose newcomers to the duo's world (it worked for Ben Brantley), but the end result feels frustratingly on the fence. The show is too outr√© for a run-of-the-mill Broadway audience, but not enough for its natural constituency. And because of the very nature of Kiki and Herb's act—which to me was among the most innovative of the past decade—I'm not sure that problem can be solved.

5 comments:

kenny mellman said...

normally wouldn't post......but....at least we tried to bridge the fence between BROADWAY and what we've done for years. totally respect what you think...only reason I comment....

kenny of kiki and herb

Anonymous said...

Hi! Love you blog articles.
A passionate fan for years so I started my own blog :-)
science-fiction@theblogverse.com

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Science-Fiction: I'm flattered!

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Thanks for commenting, Kenny. I'm not sure I made that clear enough in my post, but to me there is a discrepancy between the beast that is Broadway and Kiki & Herb. Broadway comes with a lot of baggage and a lot of expectations: Can the artist go there and mess with these expectations, or is it impossible at this point, and the artist must find another arena to be acknowledged as successful (and make a living)? Maybe I'm overly pessimistic in thinking that the former can't be done at this point, but then once in a while a show proves me wrong: Medea a few years back, for instance. I only wish Kiki and Herb will pull it off as well.

Joan said...

Besides seeing Justin Bond in "Hidden: A Gender" back in his SF days, I got to see the very first (I think) late-90s NYC Cowgirl K&H shows thanks to Elisabeth, and have fond memories of many crazy-ass performances at different places since then, including the Charlotte Rampling song in the E. Village, a fucking crazy rendition of "Tubthumping" in Dumbo, etc.

I'm probably passing on the Broadway show. It's not that I doubt its quality; I was nervous about the Carnegie Hall show and it turned out fantastic. It's Broadway I doubt; that's an even more completely different kind of audience, especially now. K&H being yet another scarce example of great political theatre in this day & age, I salute their drive to take it to that particular audience, but that audience ain't me. Kenny's point is well taken; they are trying to bridge when so many people don't bother. But K&H's essence can't replicate the crossover success of something like Hairspray or even Hair. (Forget Rent. Don't get me started about Rent. Feh.) They delivered counterculture with Broadway bombast via a Big Show, but you can't create a real cast, a Big Show out of what these guys do. It'd only dilute it. It's a conundrum.