Two for the road

Pub date July 31, 2007
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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"This is the first day of my life<\!s>/ I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you." Yes, it almost feels like that in the afterglow of Kiki and Herb’s Alive from Broadway tour, which wound up a too-brief engagement at the American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater on July 29. As a longtime duo pulled from retirement after their 2004 Carnegie Hall farewell (and for purported septuagenarians), Kiki (Justin Bond) and Herb (Kenny Mellman) are in incredible shape. And their chosen form, the lounge act writ large, smells equally fresh these days, even as it did its brazen best to stink up the enormous stage at the Geary.

To begin with, Bond’s Depression-schooled Kiki: at first glance, her look, like the 1970s incarnation of a louche and dangerously idle Malibu mom, was enough to draw unconscious childhood traumas swiftly to the surface. Outfitted (by costume designer Marc Happel) in a chiffon explosion that brings to mind a giant multicolor drip candle balanced on two liquor bottles, Kiki stormed onstage evoking a perfect pastiche of iconic torch singers, celebrity chanteuses, and other glamour goddesses, belting out fearsome interpretations of (in her hands) immediate pop schmaltz from all quarters of the music charts. Not only the Bright Eyes number "First Day of My Life" but also other (eventually) recognizable ditties by the Wu-Tang Clan, the Mountain Goats, and Bob Merrill came tumbling out in renditions that have to be heard to be believed. Suffice it to say that, in its diabolical way, it all worked, much like the popular songs in a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms siege operation.

Kiki’s renowned stage banter — which included a recounting of the duo’s personal and professional history and a sodden, delusional tale about a stuffed animal and the manger where Jesus was born — came punctuated with tantalizing hanging pauses, of a duration no longer than that needed to fill a very large glass of whiskey. As the evening’s single act waxed on, Kiki treaded from tipsy to sloppy with the incomparable poise of a true showbiz lush. Her remarks ("I always say, if you weren’t molested as a child, you must have been an ugly kid") ranged from off-color to off the hook to, at least once, right off the stage (as a now decidedly tight Kiki found herself literally up an artificial tree).

Mellman’s blowzy Herb, meanwhile, piped in from behind the piano on a near-continual tidal wave of notes like a hideous mashup of Liberace and McCoy Tyner. Herb doesn’t just tickle the ivories; he fellates them with the gusto of a rising porn star. He turns the grand piano into the instrument of a grand mal. Over this outrageous cacophony and sustain-pedal abuse, Herb (a laconic underdog whom pal Kiki publicly pities as not only gay and Jewish but a technical "retard" to boot) barks out harmonies like a tuxedoed Tourette’s victim.

Music and mayhem this precisely, hilariously awful may require something approaching genius. No wonder Bond and Mellman, the real-life performing team who created Kiki and Herb after meeting in San Francisco 20 years ago, have been doing this sort of thing for a while. If a cabaret drag act in San Francisco is not what you’d call new terrain, Kiki and Herb remind one of the enduring strength of the form when in the right hands and shoes.

First of all, cabaret’s devil-may-care insouciance masks the premium it places on skill, and Bond and Mellman, extremely clever and agile talents, have skill to kill. Bond’s performance in particular dazzles. You could watch it nightly and still revel in every detail of its perfect execution, the arch beauty of its take on the atrocious. And his voice, notably powerful and supple in its coarse histrionics, never falters in delivering full-throated commitment to the task.

But cabaret since the Weimar Republic is also the theatrical medium most closely associated with eye-of-storm moments in ages of cultural decadence and political peril. Kiki’s brash social commentary, giving vent to, among other things, her bottomless contempt for George<\!s>W. Bush (whom her lawyer has advised her she must not wish mortal harm to from the stage) and all the rest of them, is frank, funny, and unforgiving — and it strikes just the right notes somehow, as her politics boil down to a slurred Rodney King–<\d>like sound bite that’s as sensible as it is unabashedly innocent: "Just be nice, for Chrissake."<\!s>*