Opened July 18, 2007 at American Conservatory Theater
Kiki & Herb warble, whine and imbibe through `Alive From Broaway’
three stars Dark humor
The warning is right there on the poster and the program: “Dare to suck and let the magic happen,” Kiki.
It’s easy to imagine American Conservatory Theater subscribers being a little startled at what they find onstage at the famed San Francisco theater this summer. But they can’t say they haven’t been warned.
Kiki & Herb Alive From Broadway opened Wednesday, and it’s a homecoming for performers Justin Bond, who stars as “boozy chanteusy” Kiki DuRane, and Kenny Mellman, her constant companion, musical director and accompanist.
About 20 years ago, Bond and Mellman got their act together at small San Francisco clubs, and it’s been an upward downward spiral ever since. Their characters are throwbacks to the drunken mediocrity of airport lounge acts. Think Vegas before it got Cirque du Soleil’d.
But being the edgy kids they were, Bond and Mellman weren’t content making fun of kitsch past. They used their crotchety counterparts to start commenting on the state of American politics, the battle for gay rights, religious hypocrisy and, of course, the end of the world.
After moving to New York, becoming the toast of the downtown hipster crowd, playing Carnegie Hall and then Broadway (where they received a Tony Award nomination earlier this year but lost to a ventriloquist), Kiki & Herb finally come back to their roots with a show that’s not all that different from what audiences saw in small local venues like the Café du Nord and Eichelberger’s back in the day.
The difference, and it’s a big one, is the grandiosity of the American Conservatory Theater. In a polite setting, with everyone in their seats, having paid up to $66 to be there, Kiki & Herb are a different kind of act than when they’re about 5 feet away, and you don’t know if their jokes about being hopped-up on goofballs are jokes or reality. There was edge and danger and wicked hilarity.
Those elements are still in place, but only in traces, with Kiki & Herb Alive From Broadway, which is about 30 minutes too long.
Bond and Mellman are powerful performers, with Bond’s gutsy warble combining the haughty elocution of a Bette Davis or a Katharine Hepburn combined with the Broadway belt of an over-the-hill Liza Minnelli.
Alive From Broadway attempts to be concert and theater, and for about an hour, it’s brilliant and funny. But it quickly grows old, and as Kiki imbibes her cheap bourbon and gets drunker and drunker, her political rants get screechy, and the humor drains from her delivery.
The musical offerings are also somewhat exhausting. The best numbers are the Mountain Goats’ acidic “No Children,” and the encore, the classic reinterpretation of Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” mashed up with Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It’s a genius moment saved for last.
Dan Fogelberg’s “Another Auld Lang Syne” is a piece of pop mediocrity turned into a bit of autobiography as Kiki recalls a reunion with her estranged daughter, Miss D, at a grocery store. Kiki delivers the song from the branches of a dead tree (appropriately garish set by Scott Pask), but the long number withers.
The funniest re-imagining of a song comes near the top of the show as Kiki takes the Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” very seriously, though her “folk music” rendition of Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” is pretty hilarious.
Kiki’s one-liners are almost reason enough to see the show. Complaining about how long they’ve been around (since the Nativity, we’re led to believe), Kiki surveys the audience and notes all the young faces and how encouraging that is. “Between the AIDS and the Alzheimer’s, we haven’t a fan left over 40,” she says.
Before taking a sip from her generous cocktail, Kiki says: “Time to make mama pretty.” And the “prettier” she gets, the more likely she is to say something like, “If you weren’t molested as a child, you must have been an ugly kid.” The audience laughs and gasps. “I don’t care if it hurts,” Kiki snaps.
After a long rant on her loathing of President Bush, the Iraq War and many Pope-related issues, Kiki launches into Mark Eitzel’s “Patriot’s Heart” as if it were a Puccini aria, with Herb pounding the piano into submission, and then she tries to lighten things up with the Scissor Sisters’ “Take Your Mama.”
The show sort of crashes down around them but is then rescued by the ultra-dramatic reading of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which includes a coda incorporating Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”
You either get Kiki and Herb or you don’t. You either find them sharp and funny or flat and ghastly. There’s no middle ground with this kind of performance art, but one thing that is also true of performance art: a little edge goes a very long way.
For information about “Kiki & Herb Alive From Broadway” visit www.act-sf.org.