I’m in San Diego this week for the MCC Men’s Conference and I’ve managed to work in some play time as well. The day before the conference began we (Robert and I with friends) went to the old Spanish Mission at San Juan Capistrano (our second time in 12 years to visit the historic site) and to Disneyland in Anaheim. We’ve dug up good restaurants and participated in the day to day activities of the conference in addition to taking the trip to the mission and to Anaheim. Souvenirs were purchased as well. So, what could make our little work with stolen moments of play get away any better? A show at the famous La Jolla Playhouse!
Tonight I was delighted by Sandra Bernhard’s one woman show, “I Love Being Me, Don’t You?” I had never seen Bernard live and didn’t have a great passion to see her now, but I did want to see “something” at the La Jolla Playhouse, and she was what they were offering and a few seats were still available. So, bending to the will of the Fates, we got the tickets and went to the show.
I have a special interest in solo performance (standup comedy, performance art, homiletics, one character plays, drag performance, etc.) and so I thought, “Even if the show isn’t that good, I’ll have something to reflect on for my on-going study of solo performance.” I was mistaken to underestimate the genius of Sandra Bernhard.
Her simple set did not distract from her presence and energy. It was tasteful, functional, but not at all garish. In fact, it was mostly the instruments for the musicians, a few microphone stands, and special lighting providing simple elegance that allowed her to shine on her own (which she did).
She came out singing, and her voice was brash and her dancing jerky and I didn’t know if she was a bad singer or if she was being comedic. It was an uncomfortable moment, but that moment was soon followed by almost two hours of a hilarious stream of consciousness that left me wanting more.
The show consisted of storytelling, riffing, improvisation, satire and music. One thing flowed, usually without any transition, into the next. She sang a few more songs throughout the show, and the songs were all performed much better than the first. Was the first just a little off, or was it a gag? I still don’t know.
Some of the songs were done seriously as any singer might perform, and one or two were done playfully as much for comedic effect as for musicality. Within a song her voice could go from soothing and sweet to steamroller powerful without warning.
But there was one song (accompanied by a personal story) that was particularly powerful because she made it seem personal to her. She talked about having always desired to be a musical theatre actor. She recently made a television appearance with a well known musical theatre actor who encouraged her to take a risk and sing songs from musical theatre in her act. She also recalled seeing Carol Channing on tour when she was a child. So, taking the advice to bring musical theatre to her cabaret act, Sandra sang “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello Dolly! (the show for which Channing is most famous).
Bernhard really sold it! She sang the Jerry Herman number as if she was on the Broadway stage and Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, and Ethel Merman (each of whom had played Dolly) miraculously entered the space (in my imagination anyway) to join her in singing the song. It was a delightful and powerful moment that seemed to communicate something spiritually true as much as something entertaining.
Speaking of spirituality, Bernard spoke of her Jewish tradition, her daughter’s interest in Wicca, her daughter’s enrollment in a Waldorf School (which promotes the philosophy of Anthroposophy), and the difference, in her view, between “good Christians” and “sneaky Christians.” And she launched an all out comedy assault on the “Rapture” teachings of certain fundamentalist Christians.
She also spoke openly about her lesbian relationship and her support of President Obama. She was confrontational with audience members who wanted to join in the act, and for all her talk of religion, politics, sexuality, and for her rough handling of those who dared to interrupt her monologue (she said, “This isn’t an invitation for a conversation”), she still never alienated the audience and from the laughter and applause (and one person shouting, “I love you”), the audience seemed to be 100% on her side throughout.
The final part of her act, after a quick a costume change, was singing a mash-up (the blending of a rock classic and a vintage R&B “one hit wonder”) with her three person (fabulous) band. The songs were fun, the blending of them brilliant, her voice was adequate, and her dancing enthusiastic, and while the musical aspect of the final number might not be Grammy worthy, the energy and pure joy of the performance was infectious.
The show had moments that challenged the audience to think, and more moments that dared the audience to laugh without being filtered by any notion of political correctness. But mostly, it was just high energy, super fun, originality and a great example of what solo performance can (and maybe should) be.