Go Mahan(Photo by Michael Wakefield)
Go Mahan
(Photo by Michael Wakefield)
The lights dim in the cabaret room at Judy*s Chelsea and an ethereal voice recites lines of purplish poetry. You're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. You're not even in Manhattan. You're in Go Mahan country, a land that's low in restraint but very high in theatricality.

Go Mahan is a tall, thin man with a shaved head. He wears deep crimson lipstick and matching nail polish. For this engagement at Judy's (through May 26), he has switched from his unisex dress to a tuxedo that looks like it came out of the wardrobe department of Cabaret. Suffice it to say, you shouldn't expect an evening of Irving Berlin songs from this fellow; astonishment is on the menu at Judy*s when Mahan performs there. Appropriately, his new show is called Astonished Heart.

There is no value judgement in the word "astonishment." You may be surprised by Mahan and find yourself moved and entertained--or you may be surprised and find yourself bolting for the door. If his entire show were at the level of his poetry and the first two, dreary numbers written by his brother, Mickie Mahan, we'd be leading the retreat. Having seen Mahan perform previously, however, we know what he's capable of, so we hung in there to see if the entertainment tide would turn. Happily, it did.

What Go Mahan does best is to take a song that can withstand the full emotional blowout treatment and then, as both singer and actor, put the pedal to the metal. He performs the Jacques Brel/Eric Blau classic "Carousel" like a man on fire, building from a small spark to a five-alarm emotional blaze. He only runs into problems when he chooses songs that aren't built for his kind of heat. For instance, he sings the John Denver favorite "Sunshine on My Shoulders" with more intensity than the song can bear. This is not to say he can't put over a quiet, sensitive song; he'll break your heart with Tom Waits' "I Don't Wanna Grow Up." Our point is that this performer's unique personality and style are such that not every song is going to sound right coming from between those deep red lips.

Where Go Mahan truly astonishes is in "drama queen" numbers like "One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round" (by Neil Sedaka/H.Greenfield) and his coupled performance of "Sons Of" and "Jackie" by Jacques Brel and Gerard Jouannest (English lyrics by M. Shuman and Eric Blau). He tears into songs like these with the kind of ferocity seldom seen on a cabaret stage. Even in this highly theatrical mode, we should add, he doesn't hit the mark every time; Mahan gives a terribly long buildup to Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc," providing something closer to a history lesson than a spot of introductory patter. And the song isn't worthy of all the time he spends introducing it.

More often, however, Go Mahan makes you hear a familiar song as if for the first time. Under the direction of Brian Fraley, Mahan brings an intensity to each song he sings that is as bold as it is refreshing. His name, his manner, and his music all come together to create a show that is very much worth hearing and seeing, especially as superbly enhanced by Michael Barbieri's sound and lighting.