Funny lady Julie Klausner is going through something dark, and she's putting it into her new cabaret show at Joe's Pub. She takes the stage singing the Alice Cooper arrangement of "Hello, Hooray," but briefly stops to pay tribute to original singer Judy Collins. It's a song about American dreams and circus freaks, and it sets the perfect tone for the following 70 minutes. With dark eyeliner and shocking red hair teased out in all directions, she has the angst-ridden stage presence of Hedwig, a 1970s-style ennui that is irresistible in its delicious melancholy.
Klausner is best known for her book, I Don't Care About Your Band, and her popular podcast, "How Was Your Week," but she has been a regular fixture on downtown stages for years. Her incursion into cabaret is fairly new, but is already earning the praise of fans like Lena Dunham, who recently tweeted, "Julie Klausner has really made the medium of cabaret the sub to her dom." (Klausner projects the tweet on the back wall as proof.) "Please, person born in the '90s, give me a job," she implores the absent Girls creator. (Dunham was actually born in 1986.)
Perhaps Klausner's sadness stems from what seems to have been a deeply scarring recent stint in Los Angeles, a place where Klausner's acerbic feminist wit wasn't exactly appreciated. "When you don't fit in, you regress to your adolescent self," she noted, hinting at the origins of her Goth-lite ensemble. She admits that the whole time she was on the West Coast she thought, "I can't wait to stand in a skeleton unitard in front of a crowd of ten to eighteen people overpaying for drinks." Welcome home to NYC, Julie!
Klausner spends a good portion of her show dumping on L.A., singing a medley of songs about Hollywood including "Celluloid Heroes" by the Kinks and "California" by Rufus Wainwright. The number is dripping with sublimely sad harmonies carried forward by a driving rock beat. Klausner tells stories of her time in L.A. during riffs between songs. "We love it," her backup singers snarkily incant from Randy Newman's "I Love L.A."
Silver Wallace and Matthew Marsh take backup vocals, the latter of which is a master of fierce face. He kneads his upper thighs like an overexcited kitty cat while belting out the harmony to Paul Williams' "Faust." Marsh is generally a joy to watch throughout the performance. Also fun to see: Klausner's music director, Jon Spurney, who downs probably a whole bottle of white wine over the course of the show.
Spurney holds the band together during long riffs in which Klausner takes the show in unexpected and delightful directions. While singing the Nancy Sinatra version of the song "Bang Bang," she stops to read a poem called "The Jessicas." It's a biting assessment of Upper East Side bourgeois bliss, or rather, the illusion thereof that proves to be the show's highlight. Reading in a hushed and deliberate tone, it feels like she's sharing a secret with just you.
Klausner's voice is big and powerful, but also quiet and controlled in the show's softer moments. She has a versatility that bridges the divide between rock and showtunes, blending them easily as she does in her show's final medley of Ben Folds and Stephen Schwartz songs. Klausner insists that Ben Folds' music is just "Pippin with a yeast infection." As she seamlessly transitions from "Corner of the Sky" to "Philosophy" to "Meadowlark" to "Alice Childress," you begin to see her point.
This is a must-see show for cabaret fans. Klausner excels in both comedy and song, keeping you surprised with her set list as much as her constantly changing unitard patterns. Even if the songs and stories are kind of sad, you can't help but walk away with a big smile on your face.