BWW Review: Justin Vivian Bond Colors Outside the Lines with BOYS IN THE TREES at Joe's Pub
"I'm comfortable in front, but not amongst."
Coloring outside the lines is nothing new for Justin Vivian Bond, as evidenced by that thrilling bon mot about once being singled out to emcee a school play (and as a general rule). In Bond's latest show, BOYS IN THE TREES, the performer seems particularly interested in exploring what happens when one colors outside prescribed lines of gender---masculinity, in particular---primarily performing songs by men who did just that.
Clad in black with angular sunglasses and blunt bangs, Bond swaggered onstage like a lost (blonde) Ramone, starting strong with a rendition of Iggy Pop's "Cry for Love" and making excellent use of violinist Claudia Chopek's talents.
During the May 2 performance at Joe's Pub, Bond explained that, rather than singing music by women they wanted to be growing up, the show was centered around songs by the guys they "wanted to fuck." Immediately afterward, they acknowledged that the next song, the show's title track, was actually written and performed by Carly Simon, earning hearty laughs from the crowd. "I lost my virginity in a treehouse, so it's relevant," they cracked.
Along with Chopek, Bond was accompanied by Nath Ann Carrera on guitar, Ray Rizzo on drums, Mike Jackson on guitar and bass and musical director Matt Ray on piano, with the group providing backup on vocals, as well.
While the show was officially dubbed BOYS IN THE TREES, Bond tossed out several alternatives, including JVB SINGS THE YOUNG DUDES AS THE OLD BROADS and VIV GOES MASC. Jokes aside, the evening was an examination of masculinity, "the boys," whatever you want to call it, uninterrupted by the world outside the walls at Joe's.
Having established their mission statement, the show loosened up from there. Singing Lenny Kravitz's "Fields of Joy" (Michael Kamen/Hal Fredricks) a few numbers in, any traces of performative bluster melted away. In its place, there was a brief but overwhelming mania as Bond pumped up the volume, building up to what can only be described as a vocal explosion, expertly punctuated with one final staccato "joy."
Between numbers, the star was frank about grasping at straws for queer culture in their younger years, finding some solace in groups that broke gender norms, from hippies to goths. But there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the realities of those spaces, particularly Bond's disillusionment with hippie living, after a female friend who once lived on a commune pointed out she was "still the one cooking dinner."
So, the performer created a new space on the stage, from the group's gorgeous, egalitarian harmonizing on "Sign Your Name" (Terence Trent D'Arby) to a sweet cover of David Cassidy's "I Am A Clown" (Tony Romeo). With the latter, Bond delivered a stunningly sincere performance in a way that couldn't be undermined, no matter how they tried, pulling faces all along the way. For all the aural pyrotechnics and other various thrills to be found in a Justin Vivian Bond show, the star doesn't get enough credit for how tender their voice can sound.
It wasn't all about earnestness, of course. A rendition of David Bowie's "Lady Grinning Soul" started with a SUNSET BOULEVARD reference and ended with Bond on the floor, because, as they put it, "I thought that number needed a dramatic ending."
Shifting from charm to seduction to melancholy with ease, Bond's full range was on display in a divine take on "Mother of Pearl" (Bryan Ferry) by Roxy Music, just another example of musicians featured that night who weren't afraid to play with gender and androgyny. Of course, Bond is such a practiced performer, all of this kind of swirled around during the show, which could easily be enjoyed as a series of eclectic songs, surrounded by a loose handful of childhood anecdotes about lusting after an Andy Gibb poster or doing a striptease in front of a neighbor boy at a sleepover to "Puppy Love" (Paul Anka), which they, then, sung during the encore.
However, Bond's stories stacked up over the course of the night, casting a light at the way young queer people often have to game the system of "acceptability" to explore who they are. In their case, that once meant putting up said Andy Gibb poster because their identification with Farrah Fawcett was deemed inappropriate, as well as going as a hippie for Halloween because it was the only surefire chance to wear a wig without reproach.
But with the show itself, the star chucked out those rules and made their own, seemingly taking the adolescent uncertainty of whether some idol is who you want to be or someone you want to be with and saying, "Both, and neither, all at once." Whereas that liminal space might feel utterly purgatorial as a teenager, with BOYS IN THE TREES Bond showed that, as an adult, there's no better place to plant your feet.
Justin Vivian Bond will perform BOYS IN THE TREES at Joe's Pub on May 8 and 12. On May 9, they'll celebrate their birthday with a "Spring Shenaniganza" called Justin Vivian Bond & THE EAST VILLAGE LADIES CLUB: MOTHER MAY EYE? Bond's show DOWN ON CREATION - ON TOP OF THE WORLD WITH THE CARPENTERS also returns with several performances in May. For tickets and information, visit www.joespub.publictheater.org.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.