Nothing says Christmas like suicide, drag queens and nudity. Well, at least in New York, where adults-only holiday entertainment has become a thriving subgenre.
And this season, the more outre alternatives to the Rockettes include some major avant-garde names. For instance, genre-bending cabaret stars Kiki and Herb — the ageless lounge act alter egos of Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman, respectively — are following their consecration on Broadway last season with a Dec. 12 holiday show at Carnegie Hall.
On Dec. 13, cult group the Tiger Lillies, best known for providing the musical component in Off Broadway’s “Shockheaded Peter,” begin a three-day run at St. Ann’s Warehouse, performing an original concert of morbid holiday numbers dubbed “Suicide for Christmas.”
“Many people have an almost psychotic dislike of the festive season,” says Tiger Lillies founder Martyn Jacques. “We thought we’d dedicate a show to that group.”
A far cry from the silky-smooth acts that grace the city’s upscale venues like Feinstein’s or Cafe Carlysle, these shows also emphasize the recent boom of alternative cabaret in Gotham. On almost any night, auds can find burlesque dancers, zaftig trannies, bawdy singers and off-kilter variety acts. The shows might be relatively high-profile — like risque circus productions “Absinthe” and “La Vie,” which ran in the popular Spiegeltent this summer — or they may be under the radar, but there are plenty of them.
“People want something unusual and immediate,” says David Foster, whose Foster Entertainment Group is helping produce everything from “Kiki and Herb” to “C’est Duckie,” an “interactive nightclub performance experience” in which patrons select individualized acts from a menu. “They want to see a live performance that can’t be replicated on film.”
“Duckie,” which had a successful London run, opens Dec. 20 at P.S. 122, and Foster expects it to draw a different crowd than standard legit offerings.
“Though there will certainly be theater fans there, I don’t think this show will necessarily have a hardcore theater audience,” he says. “I think they’re more of a downtown audience, more aware of the burlesque world or live performance in general.”
The opportunity to attract nontraditional crowds — read: younger, hipper and more adventurous — is certainly attractive to many producers. It’s partly why the Zipper Factory, until recently a standard Off Broadway presenting house, shifted its business model. Instead of aiming for long runs of single shows, it now hosts a repertory of concerts, sketch comedy, standup and performance art. Most shows perform only a few times or on a handful of nights per week.
Among the dozen acts scheduled this month are burlesque singer-comedians Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad and rock group Groovelily, giving four perfs of their holiday musical “Striking 12.”
“We’re not pulling our audience from the typical theater group anymore,” says David Brouillard, the Zipper’s head of artist relations. “We’ll go from a room of crazy gays to nothing but a Brooklyn crowd in skinny jeans.”
Lower East Side club the Box uses a similar model, running its variety act “Pandora” on Fridays and Saturdays, and frequently changing the featured performers.
As hip as it is, though, a shifting array of edgy productions does have its drawbacks. “Advertising for a venue like this becomes your worst nightmare, because your crowds come from all over,” says Brouillard. “We’re still discovering how to reach out to these people.”
Plus, it can be hard to snare ticket-buyers when a show is unusual. “To be honest, I’m not sure how we’re going to get the message across about what ‘C’est Duckie’ is,” Foster confesses. “We have to rely on word of mouth.”
But once the word is out, an act may have a new problem. If it becomes too popular, a show risks losing its offbeat cachet.
As they transitioned from downtown venues like Bowery Ballroom or the now-defunct Fez, Kiki and Herb have faced the challenge of satisfying their loyal long-term fan base while attracting the wider audiences that larger houses demand. The Tiger Lillies started by playing dank bars, but now have sold-out tours and several major theater awards under their belts. “I do feel pressure to keep an edge,” Jacques says. “I’m always thinking of new subjects to provoke and stimulate my audience.”
Additionally, fame can attract audiences who may not embrace risky material. This fall, the Zipper hosted an extended run of Margaret Cho’s adult revue “The Sensuous Woman,” which featured plus-size striptease artist Miss Dirty Martini doing things with a flag Betsy Ross never dreamed of. Brouillard says not every patron was prepared for transgender standup comics or a Chinese Cultural Revolution striptease, with Cho getting down to pigtails, pasties and her artful collection of tattoos.
“Sometimes you’d get a little nervous,” he adds, commenting on the audience members that wandered in unsuspectingly. “You’d think, ‘I don’t think her gray hair is gonna make it to the end of the show.’ ”
Most artists would say a higher profile shouldn’t affect the work. Discussing the relative superstardom of Kiki and Herb, Bond avows he hasn’t softened his provocative, liberal edges.
“I never cater to a more mainstream taste,” he insists. “I’d say when we did Broadway, we had more specifically gay-themed material than ever. We didn’t say that stuff to some of our smaller audiences because they already knew it.”