Last year around this time, something magical happened: Kiki & Herb, that timeless cabaret duo beloved by millions of martini-swilling fans, had their first Christmas show in what had seemed like centuries. Those who were lucky enough to get a ticket to the limited run at BAM witnessed vintage Kiki in all her fabulous, drunken holiday glory — and it had me wondering if maybe that show could be the start of a new holiday tradition.
Well, traditions take more than two times, but this past Saturday was a step in the right direction as Kiki & Herb took the stage at the Beacon Theatre with their new(ish) holiday cabaret act Do You Hear What We Hear? If last year's show was like a candy cane, this year's is like a gingerbread house with walk-in closets.
For those of you who have been fans, or at least well-wishers, of the boozy, nonagenarian Kiki (the timeless creation of Justin Vivian Bond) and her gray-bearded piano accompanist Herb (Kenny Mellman), the title of this show might jingle a bell. The name comes from an at-the-moment no longer commercially available CD released in 2000 featuring Kiki's passionate renditions of popular Christmas standards such as "Sleigh Ride," "Frosty the Snowman," and Tori Amos's "Crucify." The duo keeps things fresh by adding some new songs to the set list as well as revisiting some of those old favorites.
Speaking of old favorites, the sequined jacket that Herb wears as he enters and sits down to the piano (costumes by Marc Happel) looks like the same one he wore last year, which seems appropriate enough as he launches into his own version of the nostalgic "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks. And remember we do, as Kiki makes her way onstage to roaring applause dressed in a long flowing red dress, a big glittering bow in her hair, and sequined bustier that looks like it's on tight enough to crack a rib.
Wasting nary a second, Kiki grabs a handful of sleigh bells and tears into a frenetic opening with "Do You Hear What I Hear?" sung a mile a minute, followed soon after by a joyous Christmas medley featuring "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know" and Radiohead's "Creep" — all before that first belt of Canadian Club. The indefatigable Herb bangs away at the piano, trying to keep up. Or maybe he's setting the pace. It's hard to tell in the sugar rush of music coming from the stage.
After a hearty swallow of CC sipped through a straw, Kiki regales us with stories from the past, sometimes from the distant past. Making another appearance this year is Daisy, a baby cow that was present at the birth of Jesus and was granted immortality after accidentally ingesting the Christ child's afterbirth (she was subsequently rescued by Kiki from a living nativity scene at the Vatican). Daniel Johnston's "Walking the Cow" complements the tale, followed by Belle and Sebastian's "Fox in the Snow" — a Christmas menagerie in song.
"Herb, what's next?" asks Kiki from a chair she seems in danger of toppling out of, and for a moment we wonder if she really means it before she boozily lurches into the most depressing rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" you've ever heard (illuminated by Jeff Croiter's alarmingly red lighting). It's absolutely hilarious as she effortlessly blends it into a high-octane version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and we watch that quart of whiskey empty out.
Kiki takes things down a notch with Joni Mitchell's "River" (a surprisingly good, if melancholy, Christmas song) and Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" (which has enjoyed its own recent revival, courtesy of Stranger Things). Both put us in a misty-eyed mood before she regales us with stories of Christmases past. I won't unwrap the presents Kiki has in store. Suffice it to say that as usual she poses big questions surrounding politics (how can a man with Santa in his name be so mean?) and religion (when Mary was impregnated by God, did she consent?). These are but a few of the roasted chestnuts we're given to chew on.
As the crowd rose to its feet and screamed for more after the closing number, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," it seemed as if the night could not get any better. It did — with three encore numbers. The first, Kiki's painfully gorgeous rendition of Brandi Carlile's "The Joke" is by itself worth the price of your ticket. This was followed by a tribute to the recently departed Irene Cara, "Out Here on My Own," and one more number that I won't reveal but that is a well-known fixture in the Kiki & Herb repertoire. For more than two hours, we laughed and perhaps shed a tear or two, forgetting that the friendly strangers we sat among were really just people who hadn't disappointed us yet. And all, for a moment, seemed right with the world.
Kiki & Herb: Do You Hear What We Hear? will come to Philadelphia on December 5, Seattle on December 8, San Francisco on December 9, and Los Angeles on December 11. See listings below for tickets. An online version of the album Do You Hear What We Hear? is available here.