Varla Jean Merman’s Little Prick at Café Istanbul
Varla Jean Merman returned to Café Istanbul recently and I’m calling the police! Why? Because her new show assaulted me! After her Little Prick performance, my face hurt, literally, from grinning for 90 minutes. Oh Officer!
Accurately dubbing herself a “Superspreader of good cheer”, Varla (I’d refer to her as “Ms. Merman” but hasn’t she achieved one-name status like Cher or Madonna?) emerged costumed as a syringe with a ginormous needle that shot loads of something onto the front row. They may have gotten drenched, but since the accompanying song was Vaccination (to the tune of Kool and the Gang’s Celebration), they may have gotten boosted too.
And leave it to Varla to rhyme “concentration” with “penetration”.
Greeting the packed house with “Thank you for risking your lives”, Varla riffed on all things Covid during the show’s first half, from being an non-essential worker (Working 9 to 10 to Dolly’s 9 to 5) to what happens to those who refuse to get vaccinated (Cruel Ventilator to Sade’s Smooth Operator) to her tribute to those “women who made me believe I could put my crack on the glass ceiling” which, accompanied by Mariah Carey’s Hero, started out straight as photos of notable females flashed on a screen and then shifted into heavenly lunacy (no spoilers here for future Little Prickers).
Varla certainly doesn’t let gay men, particularly those who started partying all too soon last summer prompting a Covid outbreak in P’town, off the hook. As the lyrics go in an original number, You’re a Whore, “You wouldn’t eat out at a restaurant/But you’d eat a stranger’s butt.” Ouch.
After intermission, the targets expand to include posters of Broadway shows Varla will be starring in (Booty and the Beast, Burger King and I, Bearspray, etc.) to her OnlyFans page (hysterical!) and, after many sips from a giant martini glass, recognition of her most vital organ, My Ol’ Liver (to Ol’ Man River) which features her baritono profundo voice (“Finally, something in my range”) and ends with “I just keep swiggin’ along.”
Written by Jeffery Roberson (Varla’s alter ego) and Jacques Lamarre with additional material by Ricky Graham, Little Prick is an expertly crafted show, as we have come to expect from Varla & Co., with bits in the second part that reference back to gags from earlier in the evening, making the fun even fizzier. Despite the two year pandemicus interruptus, Varla’s faux serious manner and daffy persona remain brilliantly intact and she knows how to set up a joke with expert timing.
Director Michael Schiralli keeps it all running smoothly, adhering to the principle “Always leave them wanting more”. As always, costumes are superbly designed & constructed, and, in his cameos, Brian Johnston plays the straight man with precious stoicism.
It all makes you want to break out into a chorus of “Hello Varla! It’s so fabulous to have you back where you belong!”
Shostakovich 9 at The Orpheum Theater
Though the season’s penultimate concert of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) was titled to acknowledge the final piece on the program, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, the program was most notable for three LPO premieres, including two recent works. Together, they all made for a bracing evening of music.
Most notable was Joel Thompson’s To Awaken The Sleeper for orchestra and speaker which had its premiere just last August. Inspired by James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (1955), a collection of essays tackling issues of race in America and Europe, Thompson composed the piece as a response to the social and political unrest of 2020.
Thompson’s complex harmonies and astringent passages coupled with a sense of yearning well-matched Baldwin’s probing words. Echoing a marching band, a snare drum provided a driving force that propelled the composition along. Thompson juxtaposed powerful moments with quiet ones; if a few brief sections seemed generically grand, swelling-of-the-orchestra-ish, they were easily overlooked.
Guest artist DC PauL’s magisterial voice perfectly complemented Thompson’s music, investing Baldwin’s words with the requisite gravitas leavened with a warm, preacher-like quality.
Baldwin’s writings still hold true as he challenges us with “Ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice.” When he states that “the excluded know that the future belongs to them and create the principles on which a new world will be built,” we can only hope that this shall come to pass.
Inspired by Harryette Mullen’s poem of the same name, Courtney Bryan’s Shedding Skin offered a firm yet delicate musical interpretation of Mullen’s words. Unusual in the best of ways, at just seven minutes this intelligent and emotionally engaging tone poem may be a minor work but one that makes you want to hear more from Bryan.
The program began with Lili Boulanger’s light and airy D’un matin de printemps (One Spring Morning) with its shimmering Romanticism. It easily allowed one to imagine forest or meadow creatures scampering about as flowers or plants bloomed around them.
Concluding the evening, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major sounded as fresh as when it was written in 1943, at times almost Wagnerian. If the woodwind section stood out, along with the first violin, the entire orchestra magnificently combined to create a grand sense of “build”. Only the program note that recalled Shostakovich’s “pride and admiration for the Red Army’s defeat of Nazi forces” as he composed the work, gave one pause knowing the atrocities that that same Red Army is committing in Ukraine today.
Guest conductor Nicholas Hersh brought out all the aspects of each of the four works with an energetic and faultless performance on the podium, allowing for 90 blissful musical minutes.
Expertly conceived, marvelously done, one only wished that the Orpheum had been fuller for this memorable evening. Otherwise, bravo!
[For information about the LPO’s 2022-23 season and to purchase tickets for it, go to https://lpomusic.com/subscribe/]
Mamma Mia! at Slidell Little Theatre
Okay, so Mamma Mia! is no South Pacific or My Fair Lady. Compared to most other musicals of the past 25 years, however, at least you come out of the theater humming its tunes!
Sure, it’s the grandmother of jukebox musicals, yet Mamma Mia! remains fresh with its bouncy ABBA songs and silly, yet timeless, book that Catherine Johnson spun around them.
If Slidell Little Theatre’s recent production broke no new ground, it impressed me in one respect. Of all the productions I’ve seen, including the West End, this one featured the best balance between mother Donna and daughter Sophie, giving each equal emotional weight. This was made possible by having topnotch singing actresses in each of these roles. Sounds easy, but rarely does it actually occur.
Ruby Mae Exposito gave Sophie a refreshing ingenuousness that always seemed authentic and natural as, on the eve of her wedding, she tried to figure out who her birth father is. Her angelic soprano boasts a touch of vinegar that well-suited this NOCCA alum’s multi-dimensional characterization.
Diana LaSalla, whose turns as Eva Peron (Evita) and the Witch (Into the Woods) at SLT I fondly recall, not only has a great voice making her utterly believable as an ex-rock’n’roller, but her down-to-earth, frazzled portrayal of Donna nicely captured how you would expect a single mom/entrepreneur living on a Greek island to be.
Together, with their similar miens and spiky personalities, LaSalla and Exposito made for a convincing mother & daughter pair allowing all the talk of running tavernas and finding oneself to fall into place.
Lindsy Valentino and Lisa Meredith each had cute turns as Donna’s pals with their numbers, respectively, Does Your Mother Know and Take a Chance on Me.
Mamma Mia! concludes SLT’s season that began with Matilda and included the dramedy Blue among other shows. Congratulations to all!
Hank Williams: The Lonesome Tour at the WWII Museum s Stage Door Canteen, May 13 – 22
[Jason Petty returns to the Stage Door Canteen with Hank Williams: The Lonesome Tour; tho the title is different, I suspect it’s similar to his Hank and my Honky Tonk Heroes seen here six years ago. Here are excerpts from my June 2016 review.]
If you’re a Hank Williams fan, head over to the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen for Jason Petty’s Hank and my Honky Tonk Heroes. And if you’re not, head over there anyway–by the end of it, you will be.
I fell into the latter category. Sure, I had heard of Williams, but really wasn’t aware of his importance. I certainly didn’t know that he had penned the Cajun anthem Jambalaya (On the Bayou). Both of those circumstances changed after seeing this hugely entertaining and informative show.
Petty has been portraying Williams for twenty years around the world, including Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and Off-Broadway in the bio-musical Lost Highway. Looking dapper in a beige suit and ten-gallon wide-brimmed hat, Petty narrates Williams’ too-brief life in his soft, natural twang but embodies the “singular most influential figure in country music history” as he performs fourteen of his classic songs, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar.
Born in 1923 in Mt. Olive, AL, Williams grew up listening to his heroes, Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubbs, on the radio. As a child, he took 25-cent guitar lessons from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, an early 20th-century African-American blues musician, who taught him how to sing to, not at, an audience.
Williams’ singing and prolific song-writing talents enabled him to rise quickly with successful appearances on The Louisiana Hayride and at the Grand Ole Opry leading to solo concerts and movie deals. If at first he was afraid other people would mess up his songs, he changed his mind when he started getting royalty checks and no longer cared who recorded them. He did pretty well, though, in the early 1950s with the likes of such young’uns as Tony Bennett and Jerry Lee Lewis singing his tunes.
Petty relates all this plus other insightful tales and anecdotes in an engaging and down-to-earth manner. But one senses that, at times, he can’t wait to get to the music itself. Which is completely understandable.
Opening with the jaunty Hey Good Lookin’, Petty delivers the honky-tonk and blues numbers that made Williams famous, with just the right touch of plangency coating his warm baritone voice. In Your Cheatin’ Heart, Petty even captures Williams’ yodeling style.
Standing on the simply decorated stage and singing these songs that remain great 60+ years after they came to life, the tall and lanky Petty takes us back to a time when singers didn’t need all sorts of pyrotechnics and acrobatic back-up dancers to be successful. It’s a pleasure to listen to him and I mean it as a compliment when I say he makes you wish you could’ve seen the actual Williams perform.
Hank and my Honky Tonk Heroes can occasionally turn a little Wikipedia-esque, which is fine for those of us who hadn’t been that familiar with him, but I might’ve preferred a few more detailed stories about this colorful figure’s life, even those which have become embellished over time, and a little less of the cheesy humor often at Petty’s own expense (“I’m from Tennessee where you’re not allowed to drive a car or marry your sister till you’re twelve.”). Fortunately, that’s a minor part of the show.
At Hank and my Honky Tonk Heroes audience members already familiar with this cultural force sang along with Petty. For the rest of us, it was an outstanding introduction to Hank Williams and his wonderful catalog of songs.
[For more information and tickets, go to https://www.nationalww2museum.org/programs/hank-williams-lonesome-tour]