The last time we saw supposedly septuagenarian lounge lizards Kiki & Herb, in their Carnegie Hall farewell two years ago, part of the duo’s unusual pact with the venue was that they’d die soon after the final note was played. But like any showbiz trooper who keeps returning from the brink — Jason in “Friday the 13th,” Cher, Streisand — the club veterans have clawed their way back from beyond only to land at the Helen Hayes Theater with their edgy, winning revue, “Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway.”
For those unfortunates who’ve never caught Justin Bond as Kiki — a onetime burlesque dancer and mother of three who “kicked cancer with a case of vodka and an electric blanket,” as she explains here — and Kenny Mellman as her devoted pianist Herb on the cabaret circuit, the fun is watching the act devolve into chaos as Kiki knocks back an ocean of Canadian Club.
The premise of a boozy drag queen and her sidekick pretending to be showbiz wash-ups may not seem too novel. But that’s just the jumping-off point for Bond and Mellman, who transcend camp to wildly jerk their act like a funhouse car through overt shtick, topical humor, emotional revelations and, ultimately, surreal artiness. It’s cabaret for punk rockers: When Kiki barks at the audience, “Kiki loves you,” it sounds less a term of endearment than a rageful threat. And when she drunkenly loses her place in songs, any customary, uncomfortable la-di-da’s are instead replaced with clenched, staccato growls — as if she’s livid at those damned words for having escaped her besotted, aging mind.
Rather than simply working up familiar tunes as cheesy lounge fare, Bond and Mellman play covers that can stump the most devout music snob, creating a Kiki canon out of obscure indie rock, rap and ’70s MOR radio.
One big question for the duo was whether Broadway would quash their exhilarating edge. After all, it’s hard to imagine Kiki even waking up in time for a matinee. And the Helen Hayes, while intimate, isn’t exactly a place where Bond can teeter on cocktail tables in heels and fall face down into the lap of an audience member, as he did while testing out material for this show at Joe’s Pub recently.
Then again, such hijinks at times have made Kiki & Herb’s club shows sloppy, hit-or-miss affairs.
Instead, the rigors of rehearsals and daily perfs have obviously sharpened the performance. With “Alive” down cold, Bond and Mellman, not having to worry about flubbing songs, and seemingly sticking closer to the script than usual, are able to wring each zinger and lyric for big laughs while also registering some truly poignant moments.
More than cartoon creations, Kiki & Herb become very much alive over the course of this show. (So alive, in fact, that they reveal during the evening that they are actually immortals named Naomi & Ishkabibble, present at the birth of Jesus.)
The quotient of timely — and particularly politically incorrect — humor has been upped. Between numbers ranging from Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype,” introduced as a “a folk song,” to the Cure’s “Let’s Go to Bed,” which from gravel-voiced Kiki sounds like a command rather than a suggestion, the chanteuse takes aim at Mel Gibson (“now he wants the Jews to treat him like they’re Christian”), gay marriage (they should have the right to be as miserable as she was), the pope (“the devil really does wear Prada”) and all things Bush-ian (“it was just Bush’s birthday. He is a Cancer”).
Some of Kiki’s best chestnuts, however, are recycled from previous shows. “If you weren’t molested as a child, you must’ve been an ugly kid,” she quips, and one wonders what tourists may think if they unwittingly stumble into “Alive” to hear Kiki tell them Jesus was black, America is under apartheid, the Catholic Church is run by Nazis, Maya Angelou was once a go-go dancer and Herb is a “gay Jew-tard.”
But the best material comes when Bond steps off his soapbox and runs through Kiki & Herb’s biographies, which set up each song.
One particular highlight is when Kiki talks about her children — in “Mommie Dearest” mode — including Coco, who drowned on the French Riviera in the ’60s when Kiki “couldn’t swim fast enough” to save her.
There’s also estranged gay son Bradford and Kiki’s youngest, Miss D, a biracial daughter taken away by child services, now in her 20s and living in Delaware. Not realizing how far Delaware is, Kiki takes a taxi from Manhattan, tracking down Miss D in a supermarket; like any concerned mother, she will do anything to reach her daughter (“There’s other ways to pay for cab fare,” she says between slurps of booze).
This leads into a rendition of Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne,” which leaves you with a lump in your throat as Bond allows his voice to sweetly rise above Kiki’s gravel-pit register. But Bond always undercuts any sentimentality: “I will try to manufacture some genuine emotion.”
The idea of seeing Kiki in a room with no bar seems just plain wrong, and initially, it’s an odd sight when the curtain comes up to reveal a grand piano and a giant leaf, covered in dusky glitter like a relic from the Rainbow Room, on one side of the stage, with a gnarled dead tree trunk on the other, like a leftover from “The Lord of the Rings” musical.
But this juxtaposition of the showy and the grotesque in Scott Pask’s set suits the evening’s themes, and Kiki alternately uses her tree as a stool, a perch, a dance partner and a hiding place for her beloved bottle of Canadian Club. Kiki’s schlepping up and down the tree becomes more difficult, and amusing, as the evening progresses and she gets more sloshed.The song selection here will delight hipsters as the duo bulldoze through tunes by Gnarls Barkley (“Crazy”), Radiohead (“Creep”), the Scissor Sisters (“Take Your Mama Out”), Bright Eyes (“First Day of My Life”) and Elliot Smith (“King’s Crossing”).
In Kiki & Herb’s hands, cheesy Lite FM like Alphaville’s “Forever Young” is strangely prescient, and the Mountain Goats’ bleak “No Children” becomes their own anthem.
As with any lounge act, the duo’s flaw is that they don’t always know quite when to exit — and with no credited director aboard, the show is allowed to ramble at times. One outrageous encore of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” — with Kiki giving a Mephistophelean emphasis to the lyric “now there’s only love in the dark” — would have done the trick. But the duo came back for another, Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” making for a little too much of a good thing.