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BWW Review: KIKI AND HERB SLEIGH at Harvey Theater At BAM Strong

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The iconic nonagenarian cabaret duo turn Christmas traditions upside down Nov 30—Dec 4

BWW Review: KIKI AND HERB SLEIGH at Harvey Theater At BAM Strong

Harvey Theater at BAM Strong opens its doors again to offer good tidings and seasons greetings with the wild antics of iconic nonagenarian cabaret duo Kiki and Herb (Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman) in Kiki and Herb SLEIGH.

The kooky Christmas show marks the pair's return to the boisterous characters, a boozy aging chanteuse, Kiki, and her loyal accompanist, Herb, introduced to New York audiences in 1995. Their last Christmas show was in 2007, and they've not performed together since 2016. This was my first Kiki and Herb encounter, and I was eager to have my liquor-soaked maraschino cherry popped!

Kiki and Herb SLEIGH is a fun, cathartic holiday cabaret for the black sheep of the family and those who prefer "Friendsmas" with their chosen family.

BWW Review: KIKI AND HERB SLEIGH at Harvey Theater At BAM Strong
Kiki and Herb SLEIGH at BAM. Photo by Richard Termine.

In SLEIGH, traditions are turned upside down. Don't expect a revue of Christmas tunes (though there are plenty thrown in, including a hysterical "Frosty the Snowman"). Many of the songs are Christmas-adjacent or Christmas-obscure, but somehow they suit the myriad moods of the season remarkably well.

And don't expect jukebox-style faithfully recreated cover songs, either. Kiki acts the songs rather than sings them. Bond can hit all the notes but chooses instead to bend or break a few for dramatic emphasis and storytelling purposes. So that when they do sing at their full level, the effect is arresting.

Kenny Mellman's piano playing as the gentle gay Jewish guy, Herb, is an athletic act that compliments Bond's vocal rollercoaster. He put his whole body into it, sometimes violently pounding the keys, other times caressing them like a lover.

Kiki and Herb's SLEIGH opens around another more somber kind of holiday, National AIDS Day, on December 1st. It's fitting because the duo was developed in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis and started performing in NYC in 1995, the year the antiretroviral therapy cocktail was introduced. "This isn't our first time at the pandemic rodeo," Kiki quips and honors the day of remembrance with their rendition of an "AIDS-y song," The Church's "Under the Milky Way."

BWW Review: KIKI AND HERB SLEIGH at Harvey Theater At BAM Strong
Kiki and Herb SLEIGH at BAM. Photo by Richard Termine.

Both performers wear caked-on makeup with exaggerated age lines drawn thickly as you see in high school or university plays when they're trying to make a teenager look like a senior citizen. That's how Kiki began, as an outlet for Bond to use a character based on strong, salty, outspoken women they knew to say things they didn't feel they could adequately express in their 20s. Twenty-six years after their New York debut, Bond and Mellman have matured (gracefully!), but they are still a far cry from characters born in 1930.

The minimalist set by Steven Hammel and the natural rundown charm of BAM's Harvey Theater makes SLEIGH still feel like a cabaret and not too slick despite the expanded audience capacity. What's missing, unfortunately, are the spirits. To those who imbibe (as Kiki and Herb do plenty onstage), this is the kind of show that goes well with a cocktail. Sadly, the venue's COVID restrictions act as a prohibition on libation consumptions.

Kiki and Herb possess an undying loyalty to each other, warts and all. As their story goes, they met as children in an "institutional." Herb wasn't verbal, while Kiki couldn't be silenced. Thus an immediate bond was forged. By the nature of the characters and performers, Bond's Kiki is an undeniable and unapologetic spotlight stealer, but Mellman's Herb is the perfect calm complement to Kiki's extremes. He's also the friend everyone (especially those who can relate at all to Kiki) wishes they had.

Herb is a lot like the old school piano players at jazz joints - the heavy smokers, heavy drinkers, who know a thousand songs, have a million stories but always come off a bit sad and lonely. In SLEIGH, he gets his moment in the spotlight, though, with a delightful and hilarious Jewish anthem while Kiki makes a costume change.

BWW Review: KIKI AND HERB SLEIGH at Harvey Theater At BAM Strong
Kiki and Herb SLEIGH at BAM. Photo by Richard Termine.

Kiki is salty because she's seasoned. She possesses the kind of confidence and defiance that comes with age, a tough life, and the decision to stop allowing others' opinions to rule you. Kiki is someone who's seen and done it all. She carries the same kind of audacious chutzpah Cicely Tyson showcased as Miss Jane Pittman (just replace the water with gin).

With Kiki, as with other characters they've created, Bond has the gift of making fun of heavy things. They deftly turn serious subjects into jokes, relieving and releasing the tension with humor. In a society that often takes itself too seriously, it's a welcome change.

Choosing to laugh instead of crying is a bold, rebellious move, especially when you invite others into that. It's generous and gutsy but also a protective instinct. You see it often with LGBTQ and other historically marginalized performers, most notable in the Drag world. Beat them to the punchline, make them laugh, so they don't ridicule you. It's a tactic of intelligence, social awareness, and survival skills.

Daisy, the cow, is back, a bit shabby and worse for the wear after being liberated from the year-round nativity reenactment at the Vatican. "It's one thing to choose a life in showbiz, another to be forced to perform for the Pope."

In SLEIGH, nothing is sacred, especially Christianity. The Pope, Jesus, and God all come under scrutiny. Kiki feels a kinship with Mary, a fellow sister in misery who was dealt a rough hand to bear the son of God without consent. Kiki noted that if this happened during the atmosphere of the #MeToo movement era, we'd be "canceling God." Kiki sings Tori Amos' "Crucify" to further drive the nail in regarding religious hypocrisy.

BWW Review: KIKI AND HERB SLEIGH at Harvey Theater At BAM Strong
Kiki and Herb SLEIGH at BAM. Photo by Richard Termine.

Sylvia Plath takes a few playful hits too. "The head in the oven was her party trick," Kiki explains of an old pal. "The difference between poets and showgirls are the writers lack that oomph," Kiki observes while cautioning, "Don't ever write anything down; it's a trap!" She claims to never write anything down herself, and with her free-flowing rambling verbiage that feels so spontaneous, you want to believe that.

The 11 o'clock number that ends the show and brings down the house before encores is the timeless Broadway classic from A Little Night Music, "Send in the Clowns" by Stephen Sondheim. It's deeply stirring and beautifully performed. It felt so fitting within the show's context, the season, the character's journey, and the events we've been through over the last two years. I don't know if this choice was made before or following the legendary composer and lyricist's recent passing at age 91 (same as Kiki), but that reality made it all the more impactful.

One of the most enchanting moments was when Kiki used the Dan Fogelberg song "Same Old Lange Syne" to tell the story of reconnecting with her daughter on Christmas Eve (she swaps the lyric "lover" with "daughter"). It's a heartbreaking and tender story-song about loneliness, longing, and human connection. In one verse, she sings, "We laughed until we cried." In brief, that lyric could easily sum up Kiki and Herb SLEIGH.


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From This Author Cindy Sibilsky