Sunday, September 24, 2006

Of singing nuns and Freudian slippers

The New York Musical Theatre Festival is in full swing and I caught two shows over the weekend, with a (non-NYMF) performance by Justin Bond and the Freudian Slippers in the middle.

The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun, appropriately presented at the Theater at St. Clements, is a musicalization of Blair Fell's play of the same name, which I actually saw in 1996, back when downtown was alive with campy little plays. Fell (also responsible for the live soap Burning Habits) wrote the book along with "additional lyrics" to Andy Monroe's songs. While in too many new musicals the songs are, sadly, the problem, Monroe has come up with a number of ’60s-influenced gems. The production also benefited from a nimble cast, notably Laura Daniel in the title role; Tracey Gilbert's as the Singing Nun's enduring love, Annie Nevermind; and Kristine Zbornik as Mother Helen Lawson. Yep, Helen Lawson: Fell's driving idea is to superimpose the life of the real Singing Nun with elements from Valley of the Dolls, like an Ethel Merman–esque Mother Superior and a hunky love interest called Lyon. Some of it works, especially "Superior," a fab number belted in great style by Zbornik, but at times the camp factor feels dated. Most glaring in that respect is the use of a drag nun, Coco Callmeishmael (Stephen Michael Rondel), as a narrative device. I'm not actually sure that character—who drags (ba-dum-bump!) down the action more than anything else—is needed at all. Opting for camp also means that Fell, who has a real talent for quickly switching from zany humor to heartfelt emotion, paints himself into a corner when the second act, following the Singing Nun's real life, turns to tragedy: There's no good way for him to handle the drastic change of tone that follows the intermission.

I also trekked to the Sage Theater for Oedipus for Kids!, a disaster I'd describe as being of Titanic proportions if the show's ambitions weren't so tiny. The premise is simple: A troupe putting on adaptations of classics for kids decides to do a musical version of the Oedipus story. Kimberly Patterson (book), Robert J. Saferstein (music) and Gil Varod (lyrics) managed to stretch that kernel of an idea to two mindnumbingly dull hours, during which we endured such lyrics as "Whatever Oedipus touches, Oedipus wrecks." There were references to baklava and spinach pies as well. The experience reminded me of the Fringe in that the show was based on a single, juvenile idea that should have been cast off after everybody had sobered up. Of note: cast member Laura Jordan had broken her ankle a few days before and performed seated on a rolling office chair. She was the best one, too.

Oh, and one last peeve: The actors were miked even though the Sage is tiny. Come on, people, work a little! Being miked in such a small space is completely preposterous. If you can't project, get off the stage.

I almost hesitate to mention Justin Bond in the same breath, but this post is dedicated to the weekend's revelries and technically he performed on Saturday morning. Bond, known by many as the illustrious Kiki, of Kiki and Herb, lit up the Spiegeltent, backed by a merry band of youthful mercenaries who seemed on loan from Juilliard and looked on the proceedings with a mix of bemusement and astonishment. (And sometimes they didn't look on at all: Around 2:30am, I noticed the flutist had fallen asleep on her chair and had to be discreetly nudged awake by the cellist.) The set was mostly mellow—meaning none of the rockier numbers Bond has been known to do, such as Pulp's "I Spy." We did get a cover of Kate Bush's latest, "King of the Mountain," and even when he floundered through forgotten lyrics (an attempt to do Marianne Faitfull's "Times Square" had to be aborted, despite Kenny "Herb" Mellman coming to the rescue on the piano), Bond remained magnetic.

And though the music stuck to chronicling the down and out and outcast in a torchy mode, Bond, one of the quickest-witted performers you could dream of seeing, balanced it with banter that had enough acid to wipe out entire swaths of forest, as if he was the bastard child of John Rechy and Margo Channing. You could picture him throwing Margo's lines ("I'll admit I may have seen better days, but I'm still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut") and infuse them with a hundred new seedy meanings; come to think of it, some clever director should cast Bond in a stage version of All About Eve. A girl can dream.

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