Tuesday, April 27, 2010


It was an interesting weekend for homage.

On Saturday, a friend invited me to the Barbra Streisand Birthday party at Mbar in Hollywood, which turned out to be a wild mix of performers, from amazing to okay, doing Barbra Streisand songs in honor of her birthday. It wasn’t crazy hero worship, but people had fun stories – some obviously bigger fans than others.

True confession here, I listened to Barbra almost exclusively from the age of 8 to 13. In fact, the first album I bought with my own money was the soundtrack to “A Star is Born”. A song from that was one of my favorite moments of the night, provided by a woman I’d never heard before named Julie GarnyĆ©, who has an incredible voice, and can belt as high as Streisand, which isn’t easy. She sang a song called “Everything” from “A Star is Born”, which I hadn’t heard in over 25 or 30 years, but still remember all the words to. That was kind of a hoot. It’s not a great song, and it’s even interrupted in the movie:

Of course, I’ve had it stuck in my head for days. Not a great song. She, on the other hand, knocked it out of the park. Truly exhilarating to find someone with a great voice you’ve never heard before.

The other great moment for me was provided by Dana Meller, who sang “I’m the Greatest Star” in Russian. It’s hysterical, and a perfect solution to wanting to sing a well-known Streisand song but not be compared with her. I even found it on youtube:

The performers were all game, and it was great to see so many talents – musical directors, musicians, singers, having a great time. It was a long evening – almost three hours, but a great time. I hope they do it next year.

And someone sings “Free Again” in French, which I think is the original language. It’s excellent.

Speaking of excellence, on Sunday I saw John Kelly do Joni Mitchell in his “Paved Paradise; Redux” show. According to his bio, the first time he did Joni was at Wigstock in 1985, which means he’s been performing her for 25 years. He’s brilliant.

What separates his show from homage, and moves it into a whole other realm, is his musicianship. Her songs are not easy to play, with intricate tunings and rhythm. And they’re not easy to sing, either. That he does that with any facility is incredible, but added on to it this kind of mimicry/celebration and it’s a wonder. A rarified wonder, but a wonder nonetheless.

In the first act, he’s wearing a white dress and performing mostly early songs, at one point moving to the side of the stage and picking up a dulcimer for “A Case of You” which he sings beautifully. The dulcimer, we later learn as “Joni” talks to us about John, was given to him as a gift by her. It’s hysterically meta. But underneath is seeing someone that’s gone beyond fan. He’s taken her as a persona and her music and created a complex show that celebrates her while celebrating our love for her – kind of what Rufus Wainwright did with his Judy at Carnegie Hall show. The aim of this, though, is to have Kelly play the character of “Joni Mitchell” with her stage patter, mannerisms, and way of walking (an entertaining kind of apologetic slouch) without at any point making fun of her. Neither does he deify her.

The second act is the later music, from Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Night Ride Home, and Turbulent Indigo. Kelly’s "Joni" voice isn’t as suited to most of this music, as Mitchell’s voice began to change, but it’s still the character he’s playing - I even thought he looks a little more like Meryl Streep than Joni Mitchell, but that's not at all the point. He captures her.

He goes off to a red special, taking off the dress and wig, and re-emerging as himself to play a couple more songs, ending with “Blue”. He’s an interesting performer on his own, and it’s that assertion of his individuality, of being an actor playing a role, that makes the show so strong. Apparently, from the patter, he’s become friends with Joni Mitchell, so they speak and he has her mannerisms down, especially the way she’ll tell a joke, then look up shyly and smile, and then become serious again. The character is somewhat awkward, smiling, unsure, talkative and hyper-intelligent, then giving way to explosively intimate awe-inspiring music. That Kelly can bring us both these worlds is astounding. I've never seen her in concert, and I'm sure it's very different, but you end up with great affection for her. It's apparent he's a visual artist as well, so it feels closer to performance art, with meticulous detail and thoughtful touches. It feels constructed in a way to bring out meaning and dialogue in a way that a straightforward tribute wouldn't. Maybe that's why I liked it so much. It's certainly not a version of "Jersey Boys" about Joni Mitchell, or a revue. And I love even more that he changes the songs, like an actual show, so if you saw it again you would see a different concert.

It brings to mind a bit the Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, who not only dance the ballets they spoof brilliantly, but manage to make fun of them affectionately at the same time - it's twice the work, and requires an ability to jump from sincerity to sarcasm in the twinkle of an eye. I dont think he's making fun, though ther are laughs, but he pulls us in to where the lines blur. It’s smart, surprising, complex stuff. I was amazed for much of the show. I’m glad I had the luck to see it.

This is from that article I linked to above. It says alot about what it is:

Joni sees 'Joni'

No less a critic than Joni Mitchell herself has been surprised by the impact of Kelly's cabaret tribute. "I was braced for a lampooning," she told The New York Times after seeing "Paved Paradise" in Manhattan in 1997. "I didn't expect to be so touched. I cried in two places." Mitchell, who took her own foray into cross-dressing as a black man on the cover of her 1977 album "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," is now one of Kelly's biggest fans.

Indeed, Mitchell and Kelly have become friends, too. She has seen his show three times and presented him with a dulcimer, and they've had much conversation over the years. "She does most of the talking," Kelly says, smiling. "We talk about painting, and politics a little bit, and Miles Davis. She talks about her dreams a lot. She can be goofy. And very warm."

That first time Mitchell saw Kelly perform, Kelly knew she was in the audience. "It was one of the hardest things I've ever done," he says. "I saw myself getting scared. And I said to myself, Don't do that, just do your job. Don't change anything. That would have been the dangerous thing, to feel like I had to adjust. . . . And she loved it."

Mitchell watched the show from the back of the house. "Every time a cigarette would light up," he says, "I could see her."

After the show, he saw her walking down the hall backstage and had a moment of panic, taking off his wig and then putting it back on. "And she said, 'Let me take off my jacket so I can hug you,' and we held each other. . . . That night, it was us checking each other out. And her trusting that I wasn't making fun of her or dishonoring her in any way. Especially with all the stuff surrounding the gender thing - there's such a history of people making fun, or parodying, or spoofing."

Mitchell told Kelly that seeing such a heartfelt reflection of herself was an emotional experience. "She really got it," he says. "During 'Shadows and Light,' she was standing up yelling 'Bravo!' During 'The Circle Game,' she was sobbing and swaying and holding the hands of her friends. She said it was like Huck Finn in the choir loft watching his own funeral."


Elizabeth said...

You're a brilliant critic, Mr. Criticlasm. I loved this, and I actually can't abide Barbra. The piece on Joni and Kelly is fantastic, too!

Criticlasm said...

Thank you!