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Smells Like Queen Spirit

July 25, 2007

The famed S.F. duo's comic lounge act may veer all over, but booze is the glue that makes it work

A few weeks ago, the Allianz insurance firm began legal proceedings against the German pop star Nena for turning up intoxicated for a corporate gig. The "99 Red Balloons" singer shocked the assembled crowd of insurance employees when she stumbled on stage and proceeded to insult the audience with the words, "Hey, you tie-wearers, stop being so stiff." According to the German newspaper Bild, the inebriated 47-year-old then harangued people for remaining in their seats instead of dancing, adding, "If you are like that with customers, you won't sell much insurance. I've canceled my health insurance with you, anyway."

If Nena had sought the advice of Kiki, the asymmetrically coifed, whiskey-snorting half of the drag cabaret duo Kiki & Herb, before attempting to get up on stage under the influence, the one-hit wonder would doubtless have made it out of the conference center that day with all 99 of her red balloons — not to mention her entire $140,000 fee — intact. For there are few songstresses more expert at performing while sloshed than Kiki. She might say outrageous things up there under the lights. On the opening-night performance of Kiki & Herb's latest touring show, Alive From Broadway, at the Geary Theater, for instance, the performer paused in between songs to hurl booze-infused hand grenades at everything from gay adoption to the Catholic Church. Her knees might buckle, her mascara might run, and her hips might develop a champion kayaker's roll. Yet Kiki is fervently adored.

Of course, unlike Nena, who was actually drunk on stage, Kiki's inebriation is, apparently, only an act. Justin Bond — the actor-singer who created the role of the "boozy chanteusy" alongside Kenny Mellman's sweetly bonkers piano accompanist Herb back in the early 1990s when the two were regulars on San Francisco's gay underground performance scene — draws a clear line between the drinking his character does on stage and his own teetotalism while performing. "Kiki does all the drinking," Bond told me in a recent interview. "Justin doesn't drink on stage. It's strictly for professional purposes." Yet, regardless of whether a performer's inebriation behind the proscenium is real or fake, the difference between the audiences' reactions to Nena's and Kiki's drunken outbursts is revealing: It's all about context.

In the context of a Kiki & Herb show, the knocking back of fermentables works gloriously. In fact, boozing is so much a part of Kiki's theatrical shtick (Kiki even dubs the current tour "the year of magical drinking") that it's hard to imagine Alive From Broadway — or any other Kiki & Herb performance, for that matter — coming off without the alcoholic scrim. Drink (or, to be precise, the illusion of drinking) serves multiple purposes in the duo's act. For one thing, it allows Kiki, with her un-PC banter and political mudslinging, to illustrate the saying in vino veritas. For another, it smoothes out the rough edges between the reality of the performers' true identities as Bond and Mellman and their respective stage personas.

Bond is brilliant at capturing the drunken characteristics of Kiki — from the careful control involved in allowing the alcohol to hit his character's system only gradually during the course of a two-hour show, to the slapstick humor of watching the wasted diva mistake her drink for her microphone. His skill at drunken pantomime is one reason that the duo has garnered such a loyal following after close to 20 years of performing their act. Without the excuse of a liquored mind, Kiki's repetitive stories would surely become boring to repeat audiences. Die-hard fans must have heard the one about Kiki's fight against cancer, or her yarn about Herb's coming to terms with being a gay, Jewish retard (or "gay Jew-tard" as Kiki affectionately refers to her partner) dozens of times by now. And yet as retold by a bleary, slightly disoriented transvestite sloshing a pint glass around, these vignettes are hilarious — even after multiple hearings.

Alcohol also acts as a lubricant for Kiki & Herb's famously deconstructionist approach to musical medley, where a typical set might glue bits of the Christmas song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and Meatloaf's "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" together in the manner of a junkyard sculpture. The night I attended the show, the performers segued with elastic bravura from an avalanchelike rendition of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" (complete with a dense, Rachmaninoff-style accompaniment from Mellman's dexterous-fingered Herb) through a lolloping, scat-singing-tinged take on Bob Merrill's "Make Yourself Comfortable," through snippets of Radiohead's "Creep," and then on to a cacophonous and comically un-ghetto-like "Don't Believe the Hype" by Public Enemy. The gung-ho enthusiasm for "young people's music" coupled with bad singing technique make the deranged pianist and soused singer's sets memorable. Herb might play the piano like Muppet virtuoso Rowlf the dog, but his backing vocals are strictly Fozzie Bear, and Kiki's vibrato sounds like there's a half-dead fish flapping in her throat.

Finally, the onstage boozing strongly informs Alive From Broadway's visual concept. It's not enough that the stage resembles the contents of Kiki & Herb's addled brains, strewn as it is with glitter-trimmed lobster pots and fishing nets, and a giant sparkly leaf that serves as a fanciful canopy for Herb's grand piano. More than that, Scott Pask's scenic design is actually set up to nurture Kiki's drinking habit. A large tree stump occupies the area stage left, which, by virtue of an extended branch that acts as a convenient cup holder, and a woody nook for stashing that all-important bottle of Canadian Club, serves as a marvelous armchair/mini-bar. It's one of the most expressive (and practical) bits of stage furniture I've ever seen.

If there's anything that mars the perfection of this potent cocktail of song, story, and non-sobriety, it's the setting. Anyone who's witnessed a Kiki & Herb show at Joe's Pub in New York, where the duo makes a regular late-night appearance, or at one of the grungy San Francisco bars where Bond and Mellman started out, will know what I'm talking about. The booze might flow freely on stage at the Geary Theater or, indeed, at any of the large-scale venues like Carnegie Hall where Kiki & Herb have performed over the last few years. But unless it's flowing in the stalls — or, better still, beyond the gilded walls of an air-conditioned auditorium entirely — the Kiki & Herb experience isn't quite the same. We need a drink in our hands and a feeling of proximity to the performers to truly feel their magic. Like being the designated driver at a party, we have fun, but we ultimately feel left out.

Kiki & Herb's mainstream triumph is a wonderful thing. It has shown the theatergoing masses that there's more to life than Shakespeare and Les Mis. But the duo's work still rings most true in a club setting, where the heat, sweat, and alcohol unite the performers with their beloved fans, and Kiki — if you're lucky — might come and sip your drink.

It's hard to imagine Kiki, that consummate pro, ever telling theatergoers to "stop being so stiff" no matter how much Canadian Club she's chucked down her gullet. But context, as we have already heard, is everything. Let's hope the polite "tie-wearers" that punctured Nena's balloons don't ever push Kiki over the edge.



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