Sandra Bernhard: Everything Bad and Beautiful
nytheatre.com review by Eric Pliner
April 2, 2006
In her newest work, Everything Bad and Beautiful, (no longer accurately called a one-woman show, in light of the Rebellious Jezebels, the four-piece band that stays on stage and plays throughout the performance), Sandra Bernhard shows what it really means to be an aging rock star. True, she's not a rock star in the traditional sense of the phrase—her vocals lend themselves more to cabaret, at moments—and she's far better known amongst the general public for her turn as Nancy on the sitcom Roseanne than for her musicianship. But then, she's also not an "aging rock star" in the sense that that phrase connotes of late, either (namely, the Rolling Stones eking out yet another world tour). Part rebellious show-woman swirling in a morass of identity politics, part wannabe supermodel turned maturing mom, and part old-time theatre diva, Bernhard manages to successfully incorporate her various personas into a richly entertaining work that integrates just enough of the edge that excites her long-time devotees and just enough change to show personal and professional growth.
Interestingly, Everything Bad and Beautiful's staging (uncredited) manages to reflect this dichotomy nicely. Seated stage left are the Rebellious Jezebels' pianist and bassist, spunky if slightly awkward white guys who seem to participate in the proceedings with relative order. And stage right are a less polished but appropriately edgy guitarist, looking like something of a relic from the '80s East Village, and the Jezebels' phenomenal backup vocalist, sporting a shock of pink hair and—towards the end of the show—a corset. Directly behind Bernhard is La Frae Sci, the multi-talented drummer / musical director who, together with the diva herself, is responsible for bringing the two sides together.
And come together they do, with tremendous success. Covers of Prince tunes and Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," a medley of Lita Ford's "Kiss Me Deadly" and Pink's "Just Like a Pill," and even a lullaby that Bernhard sings to her daughter all mesh nicely, alternating party-girl / girl power anthems with more mature interpretations that encourage satisfying reflection. She is helped immensely—although one has the sense that she doesn't really need it —by Ben Stanton's terrific lighting, moving the atmosphere back and forth between rock concert, solo theatre performance, and intimate cabaret. And the few theatrical devices that Bernhard and team choose to employ—namely, an onstage, mid-show costume change from flowery dress to T-shirt and jeans—heighten, rather than distract, from the proceedings.
Everything Bad and Beautiful is decidedly political—long one of Bernhard's strengths—though her commentary shows perhaps a bit too much age. Criticism of the Bush administration and the 2004 Kerry campaign cover territory that's been tread many times before (not to mention in much funnier and angrier contexts). Bernhard does her show—though not herself—a disservice in banter with the audience, showing that she still has the same fire and intensity that have attracted so much attention in the past; it's only a shame that she hasn't written more of it into the performance. When a heckler called upon her to comment on NYPD closings of gay bars in Chelsea, Bernhard's tirade in response—exhorting her largely gay audience to take better care of themselves ("They want to kill you, and you're doing it for them") proved among the performance's most electrifying non-musical moments. At the end of her impromptu, extended monologue, Bernhard expressed disappointment that she would have to return to her scripted performance rather than continue to talk with the audience. "They're expecting a show," she said.
She gives a show, and a fun and sometimes meaningful one; but the critical difference between this aging rock star and the ones who we're used to seeing is the thrill of potential. Far from being washed up, this compelling performer is still capable of really givin her audience a show that makes what might come next even more exciting than what's been there in the past, and maybe even what's there right now.