BWW Review: 2015 BWW Award Nominee RAQUEL CION'S Riveting, Intensely Personal Tribute to 'Visionary' David Bowie Rocks The Slipper Room
"In his worlds, I find myself," Raquel Cion pronounces with almost oracular force in her one-woman show, Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie (performed on April 21 at The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side). The Connecticut-raised performer and director received a 2015 Broadway World nomination for "Best Musical Comedy or Alt Cabaret Show" for her brave and intensely personal exploration of the musical legend through whose work she plots the arc of her life over a 35-year period.
Cabaret is by definition a personal art form. Me & Mr. Jones, however, asks what it means for art in general to be personal, which sets it apart from other similar projects. Like Bowie himself, whose creativity transcended genre, Cion's meditation on art and identity transcends its subject, thereby revealing how our response to art generates meaning. You don't, as a result, have to love Bowie to feel transported by Cion's funny and tragic tribute.
Many (if not most) performers can point to one artist who inspired or influenced them most. And it's not uncommon for a rabid fan/performer to acquire encyclopedic knowledge about his or her idol. But Me & Mr. Jones goes far beyond an autobiographical "play"--as Cion refers to the project--chronicling artistic influence or even obsessive fandom. From her first exposure, at 12, to Bowie's records in her sister's Wesleyan dorm, the British icon's music and life became vehicles of self-understanding for the precocious, suburban girl who never felt like she fit in.
Decked out in a sequined lightning bolt costume (designed by David Quinn) that plays off her almost defiant red mane, Cion grabs the mic with the confidence of a rock star and opens with an energetic "Moonage Daydream" from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (1972). A nice melding of "Teenage Wildlife" from Scary Monsters . . . and Super Creeps (1980) and "Heroes" (a 1977 collaboration with Brian Eno) provides an effective set-up for Cion's Breakfast Club-like reflections on Connecticut's Conard High School, complete with an evil vice-principal (and closet case with a taste for hustlers) and mean-spirited students who called "her" Bowie a "faggot" and mocked Cion for loving him.
The masterful video montage and still photos that accompany Cion's evocative, luxuriant writing--a technique recently employed in Mabel Madness, a one-woman show at Urban Stages about Mabel Mercer starring Tony winner Trezana Beverley--brings to life each phase of the performer's journey with Bowie. Childhood and teen pictures reveal a passionate, yet vulnerable, youngster holding onto Bowie for dear life; the alternation between images of Bowie and Cion (including those photo shopped by Dusty Childers and Derek Rippe) visually enacts the love story at the heart of the show; and the dizzying array of sympathy text messages the performer received upon Bowie's death (David E. Johnston) simply devastating. Even the best writers benefit from good visuals: photos by John Huntington and Carrie Lou both contribute powerfully to the show's emotional power.
"But Raquel never met Bowie," one might say, "How is what she refers to as 'her Bowie problem" along the lines of an addiction, anything but a delusion, and how can this be healthy, let alone something to celebrate?" The whole show can be taken as an extended response to this natural question. But part of the answer emerges through the character of Julie, a fanatical Bowie fan in her late 30s, whom Cion befriended at 16, and describes as "really crazy."
"Station to Station" captures the desperation and despondency associated with Cion's relationship with a handsome cocaine-addicted artist boyfriend, and precedes two of the show's musically strongest numbers: "Rock 'N Roll With Me" from Diamond Dogs and "Where Are We Now," which propels us forward some 40 years to Bowie's 2013's The Next Day album. The lyrics from the feel-good Diamond Dogs tune--"When you rock and roll with me/No one else I'd rather be"--relate to Bowie's concept of love as "the state of being understood." We feel loved "when we have been gotten" or, to import a term from science fiction consistent with Bowie's preoccupation with space, when we have been "grokked." The line isn't "no where else I'd rather be," but rather "no one else I'd rather be," underscoring once again that Cion's "soul love" for Bowie is about identity; it's as much cognitive and physiological ("the physiology of my being," in her words) as it is emotional.
This is what distinguishes Cion, who defines herself in relation to Bowie, from crazy Julie, in whom the process of self-definition appears entirely to have broken down. Is it unusual for someone you've never met to exert so formative and overwhelming an influence on you? Yes, but it's not insane, not if you accept the logical terms of the show. This isn't to say, of course, that there isn't plenty of crazy both in Cion's past (the cocaine-addicted boyfriend, the failed marriage to the man whose hands reminded her of her true love, Mr. Jones) and in Bowie's. The portion of the show devoted to the cocaine-fueled creative ascent and (inter)personal descent is riveting and the writing at once poetic and ethereal.
Viewing Cion's personal and artistic project in terms of identity also makes some sense of her idiosyncratic choice of material (and notable absence, except an electrifying "Jean Genie" from Aladdin Sane (1973), of Bowie's biggest hits. Longtime Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan recently released the paperback version of his latest book, Not To Be Missed: 54 Favorites from a Lifetime of Film. In a recent lecture at the Pacific Palisades Library, the Brooklyn native called his book a "spiritual autobiography," noting that his list was by no means a definitive one of the best films ever made, but rather ones he regards as both objectively important and personally meaningful. The same is true of the 12 songs in Me and Mr. Jones.
Prominent British philosopher and lifelong David Bowie fan Simon Critchley, author of a 2014 philosophical critique of pop/rock icon, called Cion's show "a brilliant virtuoso performance." It is, and while her voice lends itself well to the material, and her finely-tuned band under the musical direction of Karl Saint Lucy (with Jeremy Bass on guitar, Michael Morales on drums, Ian Jesse on bass, Lucy on piano, and Isai Centeno and DM Salsberg singing backup)--is fantastic throughout, the show's true power lies in its conceptual nuance.
An accident in youth left Bowie with a perpetually dilated pupil, inviting comparison to Tiresias, the blind prophet in Greek mythology. A Google search of "David Bowie" and "visionary" turns up scores of articles; upon his death, the adjective may have been the most frequently used to describe the musician as well as the internet pioneer and entrepreneur. But for Cion, Bowie's greatest gift was vision itself--the ability to see herself and ultimately to be seen by others. Sharing that vision, or "soul love," is Me and Mr. Jones' gift to us.
Raquel Cion's Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship With David Bowie returns to The Slipper Room on May 15 at 8 pm. For tickets, go to: http://www.slipperroom.com/event/1115231-guest-event-me-mr-jones-new-york/