Friday, April 9, 2010

That's Why The Lady Is A Tramp

In his recent column on Huffington Post entitled Art With A Capital "F", actor, writer, and cultural critic Steven Weber expounded on the crisis brought about by the democratization of technology. Describing what has happened to art now that anyone can buy a digital camera and call himself a filmmaker, Weber decried the lowering of artistic standards and asked if people shouldn't be expected to acquire some basic training before declaring themselves "artistes."

While people continue to drool over Lady GaGa's latest outfits and marvel at her meteoric rise to a dominant position in popular culture (a recent New York Magazine article described Lady GaGa as having the one thing Madonna always lacked -- a good voice), many lesser-known artists are overlooked as the masses stampede toward the latest international superstar.

Just look at Varla Jean Merman, who recently opened a two-week run at the Rrazz Room. As talented as she was 12 years ago -- when I first caught her act at Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint -- Varla Jean has been steadily building her own particular brand as an entertainer (how many drag queens can claim that their blog is sponsored by Manhunt.net?).

A prolific comedy writer and inexhaustible performer, Varla Jean has toured over the past decade in a series of in rude and crude stage shows with titles such as:
  • Varla Jean Merman Loves A Foreign Tongue.
  • Anatomically Incorrect.
  • I'm Not Paying For This.
  • Girl With A Pearl Necklace.
  • Under A Big Top.
  • Holiday Ham!
Unlike Lypsinka (John Epperson), the New Orleans-based Varla Jean (Jeffery Roberson) does her own singing. Her new show at the Rrazz Room is a testament to the survival skills of a wildly funny creative artist who (a) never stops pushing the envelope, (b) truly enjoys her work, and (c) gives the audience much more than they ever expected.


Although she no longer boasts of being the love child of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman (whose marriage barely lasted a month) -- and no longer squirts Easy Cheese down her throat while singing in a fierce falsetto -- it's interesting to look at how Varla Jean's act (or brand) has evolved over the years.
All this (and much more) while churning out one outrageous video after another.


Many performers who add new bits to their acts often retire their old material. However, Varla Jean was one of the first to take a serious approach to including short videos as a way to cover for her while she made costume changes. Over the past decade, she has since built up a library of hysterically funny material that is still paying dividends. Three DVDs and two CDs of her work are available online in her store.

Whether the audience watches a half hour of video prior to Varla Jean actually stepping onstage or is entertained by another clip during one of Varla Jean's many costume changes, these film segments go a long way to broadening the size and appeal of this talented actor's package (this is one drag queen who truly understands the meaning of recycling and amortization).


Her new show, "Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads" features pint-sized Ricky Graham and Brooks Baselman as the two rowdy backup singers Mini-Me was never allowed to have. Whether imitating midget Chers, making lewd puns about the health benefits of having a good mushroom head inside of you, or singing "We Are The Champignons!" the Mushroomheads bring a level of vaudeville rudeness to the proceedings that makes Varla Jean's talent shine even brighter.

Whether appearing as a pair of miniature Richard Simmons impersonators, two bawdy nuns singing Irving Berlin's "Sisters," or informing the audience that "You Can Learn A Lot From A Mushroom" this riotous trio works at a lightning pace, knocking one joke after another into the audience with the the kind of comic aim that would make Charles Pierce proud.

What has always been one of Varla Jean's strong points has been her comic skill as a writer. A number about the use of single gerunds "Put an 'Ing' on it! (single gerunds)" takes Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" and twists it upside down and inside out, to hilarious effect. Other songs, like "Sharon The Needle," "Have You Ever Been Yellow?" and "Part Dead Liver" help put the "hep" back in hepatitis.

Varla Jean Merman and her half-dead liver

Just don't expect Varla Jean to stop there. She's already discovered how to play the Queen of the Night's aria ("Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen") from Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute, on her cell phone. Whether holding center stage as Diana Floss or Ruth Buzzard, Varla Jean is a fearless performer. Just witness her many faces in the following video clip:


Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads continues at the Rrazz Room through April 18th. You can order tickets here. To savor her skill as a stage comedian (Varla Jean's comic instincts are as strong as those of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett), enjoy this clip from a production of Shut Up, Sweet Charlotte!