Connoisseurs of Kiki & Herb, the demented lounge act that has cultivated a large following in seasonal appearances at downtown clubs, may have mixed feelings about the twosome’s decision to go legit. Like so many of one’s acquaintances, these two are best taken on the rocks — which is to say, with a drink or two, to lubricate the impact of Kiki’s glass-shattering vibrato and Herb’s desperate stabs at harmony.
Amusingly deranged as this cat-clawed sendup of a nightclub chanteuse and her piano-man appendage is, an hour in the company of Kiki & Herb is quite sufficient. The show at the Cherry Lane Theater runs almost two, with no intermission and no cocktail waitress in sight. Halfway through the evening, the show began to lose some satirical steam and threatened to degenerate into the thing it is so savagely spoofing: The nightclub act of your nightmares.
But fans will be happy to hear that the musical repertoire traveled by Kiki (Justin Bond) and Herb (Kenny Mellman) is as hilariously inappropriate as ever. Kiki ransacks radio airplay of the past several decades like she’s plowing through a pile of junk jewelry in a thrift shop, coming up with magnificently cheesy and overwrought versions of such ill-assorted songs as Styx’s “Come Sail Away” (the opener), Bob Merrill’s “Make Yourself Comfortable” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Her vocal style could be described as Shirley Bassey meets Johnny Rotten.
The more in touch you are with angst-ridden rock of the past few years, the more you’ll enjoy Kiki’s snarling eviscerations of songs by Radiohead, Pulp and a band called, according to the press materials, Butt Trumpet. The evening’s musical highlight finds Kiki ranting her way through Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s On the Moon” — an old favorite “from our spoken-word album” of the same name, Kiki reminds — before turning to the more recent rap hit “Lose Yourself,” from Eminem.
In between songs Kiki does most of the reminiscing about the duo’s complicated history, fondly recalling their childhood spent in an “institutional,” where they were diagnosed as “retards.” There Kiki became Herb’s protector, because “not only is he a retard. But he’s also a homosexual and a Jew… and let me tell you something, sweetheart. When we were growing up it wasn’t trendy to be a gay Jew ‘tard, like it is today.” (Bond and Mellman, considerably younger than characters born during the Depression, wear slashes of gray makeup to suggest the ravages of age and a lifetime spent working the clubs.)
There are also the tales of her estranged kids. Then-16-year-old Kiki had to send Bradford away to private school when she went on the burlesque circuit. “If I’d known he was a gay, I’d have kept him with me,” she says with tearful remorse. “He could have sewn bugle beads onto the costumes.” (Kiki’s ensemble for the show, by the way, is a snazzy beaded white cocktail dress by Marc Happel, with a big matching silk bow for her hair.) Her other living child, Miss D., is expected tonight, and Kiki’s discovery of her absence sends the chanteuse diving for the whiskey (there’s a convenient cup holder on the piano).
Scott Elliott, of New Group fame, is the evening’s director. For the most part his contributions are hard to discern, although the show departs from prior Kiki & Herb extravaganzas in including a fancy flashback sequence set on the Riviera, where Kiki meets tragedy while yachting with Ari, the Radziwills, the Rothschilds and the “Hottentots.” It doesn’t work, really, since it renders the overriding club-act conceit nonsensical. But the pink silk shantung number, with pedal pushers, is a treat.
By the evening’s conclusion, Kiki is in her cups, relating, for no apparent reason and with numerous false starts and digressions, the grim story of a woman in Colorado who accidentally killed her 10-year-old daughter during a “rebirthing” ritual (I think I saw this on “Law & Order” once). The entertainer’s idea of between-song patter is, shall we say, a little macabre. “I’m afraid I got a little lost tonight, ladies and gentlemen,” Kiki slurs in the show’s final moments. “But life’s not a script and the story isn’t over till it’s over.”
It’s all over a little too late, truth be told. But newcomers to the world of Kiki & Herb may find themselves bewitched by her scary spell, and die-hard fans will be happy to pony up the rather steep $55 weekend top ticket. They can reminisce about the good old days, when Kiki could be had for the price of a couple drinks — er, well, you know what I mean.