Created and Performed by Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman
Off Broadway, Cabaret
Runs through 12.4.21
BAM Strong (Harvey Theater), 651 Fulton Street
by Dan Dinero on 12.2.21
Kenny Mellman and Justin Vivian Bond in Kiki & Herb SLEIGH at BAM. Photo by Richard Termine.
BOTTOM LINE: Kiki and Herb are back, in all their demented holiday glory.
I have a confession—I have never seen Kiki & Herb. I know, I know. Take away my gay card, my theater card, my downtown card—take away all the cards. Honestly, I meant to catch them. Back in the early 2000s, they were one of those acts that always seemed to be playing, until they…weren’t. And judging from their reception at BAM, they have been sorely missed.
For the uninitiated, Kiki DuRane (Justin Vivian Bond) and Herb (Kenny Mellman) are sort of a deranged lounge act, where Kiki veers from songs to stories to medleys, like an incredibly entertaining drunken aunt who free associates her way from one thought to another. Through it all, Herb never stops playing, not even to take a drink (there are lots of drinks). But unlike your traditional lounge act with standards from the American Songbook, the music here runs the gamut (sometimes all in a few bars) from folk to rock to Broadway to…wait, are we in Sunday School? I’m not entirely sure how Kiki went from Radiohead’s “Creep” to “Jesus Loves Me” to a musicalized Psalm 23, but it made sense at the time (I think it had to do with angels).
While the medleys prompt some fun detective work at sussing out the connective tissue (another one blurred together songs by REO Speedwagon, Meat Loaf, and Journey, among others), I found the musical highlights of Kiki & Herb occur when the duo performs an entire song all the way through. Bond’s voice (and Mellman’s, for that matter) isn’t “pretty” in any traditional sense, but it is both strong and emotionally rich, and Mellman’s arrangements are continually surprising and illuminating. From a meditative rendition of Ferron’s “Snowin’ in Brooklyn,” to a brassy Ethel Merman-ized cover of Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke,” to a haunting version of Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne,” the song choices are hardly your traditional “holiday fare,” and the show is all the better for it.
Of course, as any Kiki & Herb devotee will tell you, perhaps the most enjoyable moments are when Kiki stops singing and starts telling stories. Kiki just turned 91 “last month,” and has a lot to relate. My favorite story is of Kiki’s cow friend Daisy, who apparently has lived for over 2000 years (just how she has done so concerns some “connective tissue” of a very different sort), and was stuck in Nativity-hell until relatively recently, an anecdote which produced the best line of the night: “Pilgrims! Pilgrims! Pilgrims!”
But there are also stories about Kiki and Herb’s meet-cute as children in a mental “institutional,” Kiki’s children and non-binary grandchild Opie (short for Opioid), her friend Sylvia Plath’s “party tricks” (there’s a connection to popcorn somewhere), and reminiscences about plagues of the past. I saw this on World AIDS Day, and as Kiki looked out on her masked and vaxxed audience, she made a point to underscore that the gays are all too familiar with public health crises, or as she says, “This isn’t our first time at the pandemic rodeo.”
Make no mistake—as drunkenly deranged as the act is, it is also firmly political. The messaging is never clumsy or heavy-handed (and god forbid, never boring), but it’s there all the same—Kiki & Herb may be drunken nonagenarians re-telling the same old stories about their past heyday, but Bond and Mellman are very definitely making art that speaks to the present moment. So perhaps, less than a week after the gutting death of that other 91-year-old musical theatre legend, it should come as no surprise that the first of their two encore songs is Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Isn’t it rich, aren’t we a pair? Indeed.
(Kiki & Herb SLEIGH at BAM plays at BAM Strong (Harvey Theater), 651 Fulton Street, through December 4, 2021. The running time is between 90 minutes and 2 hours, with no intermission. Proof of vaccination and masks required. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30. Tickets are $35 - $155. For tickets and more information visit bam.org.)
Kiki & Herb SLEIGH at BAM is created and performed by Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman. Set Design by Steven Hammel. Costume Design by Marc Happel. Lighting Design by Brandon Stirling Baker. Stage Manager is Jason Kaiser. Associate Lighting Designer is Yael Lubetzky.