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Lea DeLaria
(Photo © Bradford Fowler)
When Lea DeLaria arrives on a stage littered with Christmas packages and other cluttering paraphernalia of the season, she's wearing a russet hair thing with bangs in the front and a couple mounds piled up at the back. It's what's known in the trade as a fright wig -- and it's frightening, all right. DeLaria, round as the letter "O," has on suede pumps and is swaddled in a girly frock with a daintily embroidered bouffant skirt that resembles the kind of outfit she wore five years back as Hildy in the more glamorous On the Town scenes.

Dressed to these odd nines, she's already tickling the audience because everyone knows she's long since dug her heels in at the opposite end of the sexuality spectrum from what her ludicrous get-up suggests. "I skinned and robbed a drag queen," she explains in the first of the laugh lines she scatters throughout Virgin Mary, Make Mine a Double: A Very Lea Christmas as if they were bright ornaments on a bent tree. Having thus paraded herself, she instantly reassures the crowd that she hasn't forsaken her stance as a crusading lesbian comic. "I've got on men's boxers," she says, pulling the wig off and stepping out of her opening gear -- and, yes, she is wearing men's boxers.

Once she's comfortable in a black denim pants suit, DeLaria gets political by lifting three packages at her bare feet that feature photographs of, respectively, George W. Bush, Pope John Paul II, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. These are her "Axis of Evil" candidates, she announces after having fired off a series of comments that are distinctly DeLaria-esque in being fully obscene but also, many will strongly insist, entirely called for. Probably the least profane statement she makes in this hilarious tirade is her contention that Lord Lloyd Webber has totally "destroyed the American musical theater."

And that's the way it goes with DeLaria. She has a wonderful time being her out-in-every-possible-way self throughout a show that is, at once, both a stand-up act and a jazz gig. Ever since she decided a few years ago to give equal time to singing in her career, DeLaria has been even more of a must-see than she was when she made her name transmuting rage at societal hypocrisy about homosexuality into black but never bleak humor. Noticing the jaw-dropping ignominies going on in the wide world around her, DeLaria still can't stop mouthing off about them in hope that, perhaps, change will come. Only Reno is her match in this arena.

Furious as DeLaria is about many issues, she doesn't let those impulses hamper another potent impulse that courses through her: the need to be downright silly. Before Virgin Mary ends, she changes her clothes a few more times and even finds reasons for doing a Hawaiian routine in a grass skirt and plastic-coconut-halves brassiere. She insists on a sing-along to a song that has to be called "Whack a Butt Plug," since those are its only lyrics. She vouchsafes why she hates "Silent Night": No woman giving birth is silent, she shouts, and then does an imitation while the audience intones the song in question. She pulls a lady out of the audience for an under-the-mistletoe kiss and then gets the unwitting patron to sit on her knee through a chorus of Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell."

Because DeLaria is so quick on the draw, audiences may not realize just how expert a club singer she has become. Along with everything else, Virgin Mary is an excuse for her to swing such Christmas evergreens as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." She also swings a few non-seasonal songs, giving a hunk of time to a number about masturbation. And despite her "Silent Night" putdown, she eventually gets around to the carol and gives it the full benefit of her hefty mezzo. Now an expert at scatting, she does a fair share of that, sometimes moving her hands as if she's playing the sax or the trombone. During these sequences she almost always does a certain amount of right-leg pumping.

Perhaps even more effective, because more unexpected, is her skill at ballads. Not kidding the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green "Lonely Town," she gives the impression that deep within her the fury she feels about rampant injustice and corruption is mixed with hurt. Fearless in every way, she isn't afraid to let that hurt show; the audience hears it and listens without waiting for a punchline.

By the way, first-rate jazz singers frequently share the trait of loving their musicians. DeLaria is no exception in this regard; when the sidepersons are soloing, she's beaming at them. The objects of her affection are Barbara Merjan on drums, Matt Hughes on bass, and Whitney Ashe on piano. The puckish Ashe plays "Silent Night" riffs behind DeLaria often enough that her disdain for the carol and his repetition of it becomes a wry running gag, thereby stuffing yet one more item in DeLaria's brimming Christmas stocking.

Because Virgin Mary, Make Mine a Double is a stand-up routine with songs, it probably should be classified as cabaret rather than theater. But heigh-ho -- or, more appropriately, heigh-ho-ho-ho -- it doesn't matter how you classify it. By this point in her career, Lea DeLaria is in a class by herself.

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