The Atherton Twins in Paramour. Photo by Matt Beard.
Can a show be kinetically exciting yet dullishly cliched? Yes, that show is Paramour, Cirque du Soleil’s first musical created specifically for Broadway. It’s a splashy and inventive spectacle in which there’s always something going on, whether it be acrobatics, floating lampshades, projections, or shadow figures. The sets are lavish (a golden stairway, an atmospheric rooftop), the performers are tireless, and the visual ideas keep coming. But that script!
A sort of uneasy amalgam of 42nd Street and The Red Shoes, Paramour deals with a narcissistic director of “film” (Jeremy Kushnier) who finds his next big star (Ruby Lewis) and tries to force her to commit to her new fame—and to him--rather than run off with the piano player (Ryan Vona). In the course of playing out this tawdry three-way, the dialogue unleashes some cringe inducing lines (“She was blue. An indigo angel yearning to take flight”) and icky cliches (“You’ve got ‘It’!”; “Your picture will be in every paper by the morning!”; “You’ll never work in this town again!”; “I don’t want to be a star!”) Set in some nebulous past era, Paramour refuses to plumb insight into the filmmaking process, instead reveling in tropes older than the Barnum & Bailey circus tent. Fortunately, there’s always room for another number—and the show does best when it drops the pretense of a story and simply goes for the pizzazz.
In the middle of a Cleopatra spectacle, two twins (Andrew and Kevin Atherton) do a breathtaking aerial display that has nothing to do with anything, and is just fine, thank you. Suddenly, our leading lady is changing into her Calamity Jane outfit for a whole other dance extravaganza that’s utterly nonsensical, but again, lots of fun, even if it seems more inspired by Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. And Act Two is even better because it drops any emphasis on scripting in favor of using the plot as a framework for dizzying escapades, often involving hanging and/or jumping. Paramour is so good and so bad, but it provides bang for your buck—the ultimate diversion for the ADD generation. Interestingly, one character who seems extremely gay suddenly chases after a girl, who remarks, “But I thought…” Don’t think! Just enjoy the stunts and splashiness and kindly ignore the rest.
BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY
Here’s some giddy gay gossip to hang onto. At the finale viewing of RuPaul’s Drag Race, interviewer Adam Barta asked Mackenzie Claude –aka good looking drag queen Nebraska Thunderfuck, not to mention the boyfriend of Derrick Barry—if he’s going to be on the next season. Nebraska—who was once made over on the show--gave a shy, noncommittal answer that suggests “quite possibly.” Barta also reports that non drag queen Tiffany “New York” Pollard will definitely be a judge on an upcoming season. Start spreading the news.
As for other career possibilities, a rumor is floating around that Harvey Fierstein wouldn’t mind being the first replacement for Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. It would make sense. Harvey worked with Jerry Herman, who wrote the score. (They did La Cage aux Folles together.) Harvey makes a good woman--as the televised Hairspray! will remind everyone. And he started out by writing about a sex club, the International Stud, whereas Bette was launched in a gay bathhouse, the Continental. Besides, when the original Hello, Dolly! was running, producer David Merrick said he wanted comedian Jack Benny to play the part in drag! This is kismet.
TWO GIRLS TWO!
I’ve got some other terrific divas for you. Vivian Reed is a two-time Tony nominee (for Bubbling Brown Sugar and The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club) who’s better described as a force of nature. With a rich voice full of astounding notes and range, she takes a fiery approach, bathing us in the joy of full-throttle musicalizing. I just saw Vivian do her “Standards & More” show at the Metropolitan Room, where she haunted with “Losing My Mind, tore it up with “You Can Have My Husband,” and got a standing ovation after her sizzling “Sweet Georgia Brown (which she did in Bubbling Brown Sugar). How often do you see a standing ovation in the middle of a cabaret act? And when else can a star come into the audience to sing an a cappella “More” (sans microphone) that captivates on command? Vivian—who came from a classical background and is a voice coach by day—also has a direct and natural persona between songs, so her talking is as good as her singing. The whole package put me to thinking that this is our new Nina Simone. But she also scores on “Believe in Yourself” from The Wiz, which was done in the movie by Lena Horne, making me extra excited to know that promoter/producer Daniel Nardicio is going to star Vivian in a Lena Horne tribute show at Lincoln Center next year. (Nardicio told me he’s also pitching a Christmas TV special for otherworldly drag star Dina Martina and also a TV show where Bianca Del Rio would do red carpet interviews at shopping malls. Bring ‘em on!)
L: Carol Lipnik by Albie Mitchell. R: Vivian Reed by Alan Mercer.
Another lady lighting up the performance scene, Carol Lipnik is a wonderful amalgam of Joni Mitchell, Lotte Lenya, Theda Bara, Yma Sumac, and Stevie Nicks—but totally original. I was lucky enough to get to guest star with the Coney Island born singer at the hot concert room at Pangea restaurant (we did ”I Got You, Babe”) and thrilled to her whole show, which started with her saying “Welcome to the séance” and walking through the audience singing “spirits…spirits…spirits.” She raised them—in more ways than one—with ethereal vocals that went from pop to jazz to operatic trills, all while spanning topics like wolves, sea creatures, bees, and the elements, with heavy amounts of “Carol Lipnik reverb” on the mic. There is no preciousness here—Carol is vocally spot on, totally immersed, and delightfully playful as she lives in the moment of each syllable. A lovely version of “Moon River” was the perfect finale to pulsate my chakras.
August Darnell came to fame in the 1970s and ‘80s with groups like Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Kid Creole and the Coconuts, fusing big band, R&B, Latin, and Caribbean sounds for a unique dance mix that elevated nightclubbing. He’s now co-written a musical—Cherchez La Femme—with Vivien Goldman and his brother Stony Browder Jr.—using a couple of the old hits (like the title song) and some new material for a look at the drama behind a Kid Creole-like group and its narcissistic softie of a leader, in the 1980s. With live vocals accompanying pre-recorded tracks, the show takes us from the Pudd Cub (based on the NYC new wave haven the Mudd Club) all the way to an appearance on Sunday Nite Live (you can figure what that’s based on), all colorfully costumed by Coconuts’ cofounder (and Darnell’s ex wife) Adriana Kaegi, who invited me to see the show at La MaMa. The result is light and lively, if broader than a zoot suit’s shoulders.
Yet more musical nostalgia is served with the York Theatre Company’s revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown by Clark Gesner, using additional material by Andrew Lippa and Michael Mayer from the 1999 Broadway revival. But there’s a difference this time. Charles M. Schulz’s batch of neurotic “Peanuts” kids confronting life’s existential truths while clutching their figurative crutches are played by…kids. What a concept! Since the tiny characters are usually grappling with their own version of grownup crises, adults always play the parts. But having kids do it makes it fresh, appealing, and endlessly cute (but not cutesy). The show is basically a series of vignettes and songs, like a comic strip come to life, whether the gang is trying to scrape together 100 words for a book report or fighting over a pencil during Glee Club rehearsal. As directed by Michael Unger, they do a lovely job, from Joshua Colley as a yearning Charlie Brown to Jeremy T. Villus as the blanket grabbing Linus to Milly Shapiro as the impetuous Sally, choosing “My New Philosophy” every two minutes. Shapiro—who was also great in Matilda—projects a wonderful wisdom of the ages in her face, making her a priceless character actress even now. I wanted to storm the stage and yell “You’ve got ‘It’!” but I didn’t want to sound like a character from Paramour. Besides, I wanted to watch the show.