The name of the show is Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway, which is the first inkling that these beloved entertainers are not dead — even though they were supposed to perish after performing at Carnegie Hall in 2004. But here’s the really shocking news flash: the two people cavorting wildly on the stage of the Helen Hayes are named Naomi and Ishkabibble. Okay, as it turns out, those same two people — brilliantly embodied by Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman, respectively — are also Kiki and Herb, the now 76-year-old cabaret performers whose lifelong partnership is the ultimate E: True Hollywood Story. To unravel this riddle, you’ll simply have to visit the Hayes during the pair’s four-week engagement there.
Indeed, it’s highly recommended that you take this opportunity to spend an evening in this extraordinary pair’s presence, whether you’ve followed them for the past 15 years or never seen them before in your lives. Perhaps the only exception should be people who are truly offended by jokes about Catholics (specifically Pope Benedict), Jews, gays, retards (their word, not mine), child molestation, President Bush, or Mel Gibson. Or those folks who believe no one should ever cover a Public Enemy song, least of all a woman who could be the love child of Wayne Newton and Joan Crawford.
Having made something of a career out of political incorrectness, Kiki and Herb hardly seemed destined for the Great White Way. And while there was something slightly more authentic about watching them in the more intimate confines of hipster haunts like Fez, with a drink in your hand — the better to try to keep up with Kiki’s remarkable alcohol consumption — the dysfunctional duo seems quite at home on the Main Stem. Kiki’s oversize personality and raspy alto have adjusted flawlessly to the new, larger confines, although Herb — who’s always been the decided second banana — seems even a bit more in the background than before. Perhaps to compensate, he has been given some pretty nifty onstage digs: a giant leaf-like bandshell designed by Tony Award winner Scott Pask, augmented by a tree stump that Kiki inventively uses both as bar stool and liquor cabinet.
Smartly, Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway uses much the same formula that have made their previous acts a success, but it’s been given a slight and somewhat needed dash of polish. Once again, Kiki relates many of the autobiographical details that are mother’s milk to the pair’s fans — how she and Herb met in the “institutional,” how they rescued Daisy, the 2000-year-old cow, from the Vatican, and how she lost custody of her daughter, Miss Dee — but this familiar ground is covered just succinctly enough to please devotee and virgin alike. (It should be noted that no director is credited on this show.)
Moreover, all of their shows work off the premise that Kiki gets drunker as the night goes on, and as she does so, she becomes more brutally honest. She also gets a little more rambling and annoying — just like a real drunk — and in past shows, I’ve felt that Kiki has literally outstayed her welcome. This time, the calibration seems properly calculated.
What has always amazed me most about Kiki and Herb is the ingenuity of their song selection; I can only imagine the countless hours Bond and Mellman spent going through recordings to find the right tune to make each point or ease each transition. The typicially eclectic repertoire here ranges from Broadway veterans Bob Merrill and Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt to singer/songwriters Stephin Merritt and the late Elliot Smith to such au courant pop groups as Bright Eyes and The Scissor Sisters (with whom they have toured).
If not everything lingers afterward, three numbers are burned into the memory by Kiki’s — or should I say Bond’s — unique artistry: Dan Fogelberg’s bittersweet “Same Old Lang Syne,” which becomes a surprisingly moving re-telling of the reunion between Kiki and her long-lost daughter; Mark Eitzel’s story song “Patriot’s Heart,” which was based on his visit to a gay bar shortly after 9/11; and the 1960s anti-war anthem “One Tin Soldier,” which is performed so viscerally you will never hear the song the same way again.
That is the genius of Kiki and Herb. Or should I say Naomi and Ishkabibble. Either way, let us all be thankful they’re still alive.