Sandra Bernhard’s droll, knowing takes on pop culture were about as strong as ever at the world premiere of her new show, “I Love Being Me, Don’t You?” showcasing tracks from her new album of the same name at Manhattan’s Town Hall on Wednesday night. Opening with a fierce vocal take on Bobby Womack’s 1972 blaxploitation hit “Across 110th Street,” served with trademark soul flourishes from the Arizona-bred performer, she segued between comedy bits and musical numbers in a model familiar to her many loyal (and overwhelmingly gay male) fans in the audience.
The unique attraction of the evening was a lineup of one-night-only guest stars for her tour’s launch: Liza Minnelli, Rufus Wainwright and Justin Vivian Bond (of Kiki & Herb fame). After a casual start referencing Sarah Palin and Donald Trump’s recent pizza summit (far less vicious than her reported Palin comments three years ago) and Bristol Palin’s teen abstinence campaign for Candie’s (“Just what I want to see my teenager in: a pair of cheap Candie’s. It’s the kind of shoe that says, ‘You’ll find me thrown out of a moving car along the highway'”), Bernhard brought out her biggest ammo just 15 minutes into the show.
“I’m serving dessert before dinner,” she exclaimed, and Minnelli emerged to a standing ovation. The pair had some old-showbiz banter before their profanity-laced “Chicago” duet, “Class,” prompted another standing-o. After more riffing on society’s absurdities, stories about her 13-year-old daughter (who recently announced her intention to become a “modified Wiccan”) and a shout-out to her longtime girlfriend, Bernhard was joined by Bond for a duet from their upcoming musical “Arts and Crafts.” Oddly enough, given Bond’s act, it was her least irony-tinged number of the night and one of the best showcases of her voice to date.
Wainwright followed with a touching tribute to his late mother Kate McGarrigle, mixing her song “Talk To Me Of Mendocino” with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind.” He was in fine form, but Bernhard sometimes strayed into the brash, over-the-top belting that can be comically pleasing, yet sometimes detracts from her true vocal abilities.
Presenting so many big-name guests in the first half of a nearly two hour, intermission-less show was a risky move, but Bernhard only grew stronger as the night went along, which bodes well for the rest of her mainly bi-coastal tour. (Other guests are expected to be announced in the coming weeks).
She closed with an inspired mashup of Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly” and Pink’s “Just Like a Pill” that didn’t sacrifice good vocals for its amusement factor, one of several smart choices by musical director Carla Patullo. The silver lame and feathered costumes by Ralph Rucci revealed a body which, like her voice and wry humor, has remained undiminished over her three decade-plus career.