When I was 11 years old, I attended a class trip to Detroit that required us to spend a night in a hotel. All of the presumably straight boys spent the evening trying to access a movie called Showgirls on the hotel pay-per-view. They had doubtlessly heard that the film features abundant full-frontal female nudity; but could they have anticipated that this boob-tastic movie would enter the pantheon of gay camp classics? It's a so-bad-it's-good howler that never fails to bring me joy, so I was thrilled to learn that Gina Gershon (who played the film's sadistic female antagonist) was making her Café Carlyle debut.
Of course, Gershon has since appeared in the Broadway revivals of Cabaret and Bye Bye Birdie, but there's one Gershon performance that surpasses all others in the gay collective imagination. Expecting a campy nostalgia trip to Cristal Connors's Las Vegas, I was pleasantly surprised to get something even better: Armed with a wicked grin and a soulful voice, Gershon wraps us around her little finger from the first moment, reeling us in like we're a room full of Nomi Malones.
She enters the dining room singing Ida Cox's "Wild Women Don't Get the Blues" (the title of the show) and clutching a glass of what appears to be ice water; but is it actually vodka? I'd be willing to bet, especially after seeing this deliciously naughty show, which is a whole lot of fun and just a little bit dangerous.
Gershon tells a story about growing up with Laura, the family maid-cum-bookie, who advised her to always carry a knife in New York City. "This is a butterfly knife," she says as she removes the blade from her low-cut blue suit jacket. "It's illegal." This leads right into the Jessie Mae Robinson number "I'm Gonna Catch Me a Rat," which she delivers with rebel flair.
The program is just a little bit country, leading Gershon to pull out her mouth harp, which she refers to as a "Jew's Harp." She dexterously twangs it on Leon Payne's "Lost Highway," and plays it while simultaneously singing during "Marie," a rollicking song she wrote about the woman who taught her to play. Gershon has another original song in the set list, the darkly funny "Pretty Girls on Prozac," which left me more euphoric than the best antidepressant ever could.
Her rendition of the Ruth Brown number "I Don't Know" is sultry and seductive, while her interpretation of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" is just a little too sexy to be taken literally (as Gershon insists). Her voice really takes flight, though, during a medley of breakup songs that weave together the work of Prince, Elvis Costello, and Damien Rice. The absolute highlight of the evening is a performance of the Kenny Rogers tune "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," which has Gershon wailing as she swings her hair like Ann-Margaret. The combination of music, comedy, and sex appeal makes it feel like we've been transported to a clandestine nightclub in the mid part of the 20th century.
Musical director Steven Bernstein helps sustain that tone. He's the rare MD who is not a pianist, but a trumpeter. He accents the show with enthusiasm and skill, barking like a bad dog during Peggy Lee's "He's a Tramp" and blasting the dining room with his lively jazz solos. The rest of the band (Eli Brueggeman on piano, Brad Jones on bass, and Jerome Jennings on drums) ably back them up and appear to be having a lot of fun doing it. There's genuine chemistry on this stage.
At the center of it all is Gershon, the eternal bad girl. She sizzles through the set list and keeps us in stitches with her frequently blue between-song banter. Oh yes, she has plenty to say about Showgirls.