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Kiki and Herb: Seeking Asylum!

The downtown cabaret duo reunites at Joe's Pub following a nine-year hiatus.

Kenny Mellman and Justin Vivian Bond star in Kiki and Herb: Seeking Asylum! at Joe's Pub.
(© Kevin Yatarola)

Sometimes new and surprising things come in old packages. That is certainly the case with Kiki and Herb, the Catskill-style cabaret duo currently performing at Joe's Pub. A pre-show announcement warns, "These performers are in their eighties and are doing their best." Their best turns out to be the very best in New York City cabaret. Kiki and Herb offer an intoxicating mix of comedy, commentary, and powerhouse vocalization in a style few can replicate.

Of course, the two performers aren't really in their 80s (if the exaggerated lines painted on their faces are any indication). Kiki and Herb are the alter egos of Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman. Bond and Mellman ruled the downtown cabaret scene as the salty chanteuse and her slightly demented gay accompanist throughout the '90s and early 2000s, culminating in a 2006 Broadway show, Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway! Kiki and Herb: Seeking Asylum! represents their first public reunion since a 2007 Carnegie Hall concert. They blame their absence on the Obama presidency, noting, "No one wants to see Kiki and Herb when they have hope." Certainly, the present national situation feels like a good time for a comeback.

We learn a little bit about what they've been up to through a convoluted story told during an extended musical interlude for Styx's "Come Sail Away." Apparently, Kiki has been working as an entertainment correspondent for Al-Jazeera, a job that took her across the Maghreb and Middle East to Syria, where she looked to the sea with a group of Syrian refugees. By the time she comes around to the final refrain, we've completely forgotten that this is the song she was singing.

Kiki (Justin Vivian Bond) twirls in her dress and Herb (Kenny Mellman) looks on from behind the piano in Kiki and Herb: Seeking Asylum!
(© Kevin Yatarola)

Rather than being lubricant for the songs, Kiki's digressions are actually the main event. She monologues on issues as sensitive as Hillary Clinton ("the ultimate showgirl"), the Arab Spring ("I was told I'd be covering Burning Man"), and transgender bathroom politics ("Until everyone can pee where they want, no one should pee where they should"). It's hard to categorize her politics as anything other than the uncommon (but surprisingly cogent) observations of a lifelong outsider, which all great artists are. Like a heat-seeking missile, Kiki zeroes in on calcified orthodoxies from across the political spectrum, blowing them to smithereens.

As Herb, Mellman has the herculean task of vamping through Kiki's epic digressions, which he does almost effortlessly. He occasionally shouts backup, as when Kiki drifts through the dining room singing a mashup of Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" and Gregory Porter's "1960 What?" His one solo number, Death Cab for Cutie's "I Follow You Into the Dark," proves to be a much needed and quite touching reprieve from the general lunacy of the evening.

Kiki is never far from the stage, however, returning in tie-dyed palazzo pants and an electric teal top to sing a medley that includes "Seasons of Love" from Rent, "The Rainbow Connection" from The Muppet Movie, "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music, and "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," the Nazi anthem from Cabaret. Strangely, they all seem to make sense together.

One of the great belters of the cabaret stage, Bond is in excellent voice, singing driving and powerful interpretations of Elliot Smith's "Waltz #2'' and Prince's "When Doves Cry." There's an artful precision to the way Bond slurs through the lyrics as Kiki rounds her third and fourth drink. The sentiment in Fugazi's "I'm So Tired" (performed near the end of the show) feels very real, but the articulate and resonant way in which Bond delivers the number betrays a performer in full control.

Justin Vivian Bond astounds the audience as Kiki DuRane in Kiki and Herb: Seeking Asylum!
(© Kevin Yatarola)

Similarly, a rousing rendition of Elton John's "The King Must Die" has Kiki reciting the "Death of Kings" speech from Richard II with lyrical dexterity and illuminating inflection. Every word is crystal clear as we are transported to the coast of Wales with the soon-to-be-deposed Plantagenet. Someone at the Public really ought to take the hint and cast Bond in next summer's Shakespeare in the Park.

Practically Shakespearean in length, the show clocks in at over two hours (a marathon for cabaret). Still, we wouldn't have it any shorter: Kiki and Herb have been away for too long and we have a lot of catching up to do. Creative, unorthodox, and always hilarious, Kiki and Herb are a vital part of the cabaret ecosystem. Let's hope this time they're here to stay.