Cabaret shows with a theme, from "The Songs of Jule Styne" to "The Great Ladies of the Silver Screen," are the staples of many of an uptown venue. But leave it to the always original, always inventive Justin Vivian Bond to create a cabaret piece with a mission statement: Mx America, now premiering at downtown's Joe's Pub.
"It was inspired by a quote from my friend Billy's father, who said you could tell the depth of a person's tragedy by the amount of distance between how they see themselves and how they're seen by others; As an American and as a transperson, I find this hypothesis to be really interesting," Bond (who now prefers to goes by the initial V) tells the rapt audience early in this 90-minute mix of monologues and music. And it's impressive how much of the show (which is also loosely tied to categories in the Miss America pageant) explores this dichotomy.
Take V's adolescent fascination with the famed Estee Lauder model Karen Graham – a subject which takes up a surprisingly large amount of the show. Graham, who was the face of the cosmetics brand for the 1970s, was the epitome of blandness with her "dead eyes" and almost equally deathless smile. But as V reveals, Graham later became an expert at fly fishing. Who would have imagined?
Before singing the haunting "Dues," V reflects not only on how the role of Barbara Jean in the Oscar-winning movie Nashville essentially defined singer Ronee Blakley's career for decades, but muses on the perils of early success -- a rather obvious if unspoken reference to how V's own award-winning portrayal of Kiki (of Kiki & Herb fame) is a shadow that may always linger no matter how often Bond's career mutates.
Part of what makes the show work so well is the many different ways V explores the subject of identity, from a conversation with a psychic to a video montage of the actress Vivien Leigh that plays on stage while V sings her poignant composition "Stars" to a frank and very funny section about V's troubled relationship with her family (which is complemented by another fine original composition "Equipoise").
Not surprisingly, the show also boasts its share of outrageous, political humor that can make some in the audience gasp. (Anti-abortion foes beware!). And there's even a sprinkling of "crass commercialism," as V calls it, as Mx America goes through the club spritzing her audience with V's new, specially-created perfume "An Afternoon of a Faun." Bond also shares an early clip of V acting at San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros three decades ago, a rather fascinating and unexpected glimpse into this singular performer's past.
Most important, while making us laugh, V is also willing to laugh at V – a rare attribute in today's era of self-important performers. For that feat alone, V deserves to wear the crown of Mx America.
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