Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway
nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
August 14, 2006
What a glorious mess this show is. From the euphoric highs of an audience seized by uncontrollable laughter to the headache-inducing lows of some of the stars' ear-splitting arrangements, Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway is undoubtedly one of the most unusual shows ever to play the Great White Way. Whether you find the fact of the duo's having reached Broadway the height of camp or an unfathomable mystery indicates a lot about how much you might enjoy the show.
For those not familiar with the act, Kiki & Herb are the over-the-hill performance personas of Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman. An evening with these aging lounge lizards usually begins with some standards and folk songs in inappropriately peppy or serious arrangements, Kiki's vibrato-laden vocal stylings and outsized showbiz gestures recalling emotive songstresses like Judy Garland and Eydie Gorme. Herb noodles away at the piano throughout, contributes emphatic back-up vocals, and plays straight man to Kiki during her stream-of-consciousness between-song patter. The entire show is executed in the loose manner of a late-night club act, and there's no apologies for any sloppiness or rough edges.
Over the course of the evening, Kiki tells stories and the duo drinks...and drinks...and drinks—until Kiki's patter and singing become unintelligible and Herb's piano accompaniment degenerates into violent pounding.
Now if you don't find the prospect of watching a cabaret performance deteriorate before your very eyes at all funny, this probably is not the show for you (especially at $87.50 a ticket). If you have a healthy appreciation for camp, drag humor, and ironic takes on songs ranging from standards to contemporary pop & rock, you're likely to find Kiki & Herb hilarious. And if you agree with Kiki's political sympathies, you might even find the evening to have a good bit of real substance, as quite a bit of the patter is devoted to sharp-toothed criticism of George W. Bush, the War in Iraq, religion, and the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy.
For many, though, it will be hard to sit through the more "performance art" portions of the program, namely the long last hour. By this point, Kiki is nearly incoherent and collapsed on the floor, and Herb's impressionistic improvisations have become incoherent as well. It's loud, it's crazy, and it's abrasive, but that's what they're going for—the glory of going up in flames. Kiki offers a clue to the concept behind this self-destructing routine when she describes vodka as a sort of "truth serum." Perhaps it's in the wildly uncontrolled mode of stage-drunkenness that their musical and political ideas are communicated most freely.
Justin Bond is masterful as Kiki. The sharp witticisms and incisive insights in the guise of tired Las Vegas club patter keep the audience laughing through most of the show. She can deliver a sensitive, meaningful lyric just as well as the jokes, though, and it's this shifting between comedy and real pathos that keeps the audience thinking, feeling, and on their toes. Mellman's Herb mostly is concerned with the musical underscoring and accompaniment, though he does participate in some of the comedy with an occasional take out to the audience or emphatic comment.
I don't follow a lot of the kind of music that inspires Bond and Mellman, so some of the irony of their song choices was lost on me. What I did appreciate, however, was that they've mined material that spans a wide generational range. The appeal of Kiki & Herb is more about sensibility than age.
Marc Happel's costumes and Scott Pask's glittery set, which includes a huge leaf which serves as a sort of "bandshell" for Herb and his piano and a large, dead tree on which Kiki perches for part of the show, certainly are Broadway-worthy. Jeff Croiter's lighting is flawless. The sound balance could be better; Herb's pounding keyboard style sometimes drowns Kiki out, and it's important to hear her words, not only for the jokes but for the deeper messages contained in this wild show.
By the way, the title of the show "Alive on Broadway" is a reference to the fact that Kiki & Herb "died" at their last major New York engagement—at Carnegie Hall. For drama queens like these, there could be no more appropriate resurrection than one on Broadway.