"Shabbat Shalom," Sandra Bernhard greets the Friday night crowd, an exhortation in keeping with the satiric title of her new cabaret show, Songs I Sang on the Kibbutz, which continues Wednesdays through Fridays (until July 28) at Joe's Pub.
It is also apropos, as a Bernhard performance is something of a religious experience for her acolytes, who anxiously await her eagle-eyed, sharp-tongued pronouncements on life, culture, celebrity, and especially fashion. Her recounting of hosting this year's CFDA Awards brings a chuckle to even those who don't know Gucci from Pucci (and a big guffaw from this writer, who attended the event) and her hilarious readings of the cover lines of two women's magazines (akin to comedian Julie Halston's hysterical recitations of The New York Times wedding announcements) is almost worth the price of admission.
But laughs aside, the focus of this 75-minute gig is music. It is Bernhard the rock singer who takes center stage, wrapping her full-force belt and slightly squeaky upper register around an eclectic songbook: a remarkably assured version of "The Windmills of Your Mind," a plaintive reading of Tom Waits' "Downtown Train" (where for the first time, if nothing else, you can understand all the lyrics), and the show-stopping finale, an extended version of the Rolling Stones' "Salt of the Earth" that leaves the audience wanting more.
Although Bernhard has always sung in her one-person shows, including "Without You I'm Nothing" and "I'm Still Here...Dammit," this time she exhibites a new level of technical expertise. "I am taking music more seriously, which isn't to say I am going to be more serious," Bernhard tells me a couple of weeks before the show. "My voice has really come into its own. I've come to understand that singing is an important part of what I do, and what I am going to continue to do."
Another part of what Bernhard does now is songwriting; a true highlight of her show is "Undressed," an extremely clever paean to her love-hate relationship with designer fashion, co-written with her longtime accompanist and friend Mitch Kaplan. "The thing about designers is that the only reason they dress people is to meet them and then get them into bed," she says, not really joking.
So is there an album of Bernhard originals in the future? "If I can come up with enough songs, maybe," she says. "But it's really hard to write a good song. It's a very particular craft, and I don't have the time to do it."
It says a lot for Bernhard to admit something is "hard." She claims her monologues, though honed by live performance, come into her head quickly--as do her audiences ripostes. "I don't labor over stuff, and I don't put a lot of stress and insanity into my work," says Bernhard. "I just go on stage and go for it. I feel like I have a computer chip in my head, so if I need to, I can even write another monologue while I am up there."
Even balancing motherhood isn't that difficult, says Bernhard, who can often be seen about town with her daughter. "It's not as hard at it seems," she says. "Maybe it's because I'm a Gemini."
Perhaps the only other thing that is hard for Bernhard--at the moment anyway--is finding suitable film roles. Does she long for the career of say Sandra Bullock? "Have you seen any films lately and thought, 'Ooh, Sandra Bernhard would be great in that part'?" she asks with a bit of edge in her voice. "Neither have I. So I don't feel like I am missing out on anything. If anything, I see things on television that would be more fun to do."
"But you know, I would rather be here with the baby than traveling to do some second-rate film. I don't need to be a superstar."