Review: Kiki and Herb Kick the Season Into High Gear With Their New Holiday Show SLEIGH
The beloved cabaret duo returns to the stage for a limited run at the BAM Harvey Theater.
It's been 14 years since Kiki and Herb had a holiday show. In 2007 the duo rang in the Christmas season with The Second Coming, and fans of these two New York City mainstays have been sullenly swirling their swizzle sticks ever since in anticipation of another Kiki and Herb jingle fest.
Well, the wait is over, and it was worth every teary Christmas martini. Justin Vivian Bond, as Kiki, and Kenny Mellman, as Herb, took to the BAM Harvey stage on Tuesday night to a standing ovation at the beginning of their new holiday spectacular, SLEIGH, one of the most entertaining and hilarious nights of cabaret and theater you're likely to see this year, or ever.
The pair was in prime Kiki-and-Herb form as Mellman sat down to the piano sporting a gray beard and wearing a sparkling red and black jacket (costumes by Marc Happel), and Bond, forehead thickly furrowed with age makeup, entered in a swirly colored, bosom-hugging dress and launched into an un-Christmasy medley that included Billy Joel's "Miami 2017" ("I've seen the lights go out on Broadway"), Kiss's "I Was Made for Loving You," and Foreigner's "Feels Like the First Time," among others. Reaching out toward the audience, eyes wide à la Norma Desmond, and forgetting words to the songs even before that first belt of Canadian Club, Kiki was back, and the audience was in raptures.
Sitting at a small table with an ice bucket and a bottle of booze that never seems to empty, the 91-year-old chanteuse commiserated about the past difficult year before singing a frenetic arrangement of more traditional standards like "Sleigh Ride" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" interwoven with Radiohead's "Creep" and the hymn "Jesus Loves Me This I Know." In that magical Kiki and Herb way, it all came together in an irresistible musical fruitcake.
Bond and Mellman have been performing as Kiki and Herb for decades now, and they've mastered the art of the emotional arc. At one end of the candy cane, there was the hilariously tragic tale of the pair's long, hardscrabble history together: Born during the Depression, Kiki was sent away by her mother to an "institution" where Herb, as an infant, was found on a doorstep in swaddling clothes bearing the star of David. Later, the two children were allowed to make music together in a padded, soundproof room. They've been inseparable (and touring) ever since.
At the other end, there were more introspective songs. After an interlude in which Herb calls attention to the Hanukkah season with an eyebrow-raising mashup of Steven Carr Reuben and Judy Caplan Ginsburgh's "Oh, If I Were a Dreidel" and Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," Kiki gives a captivating performance of Brandi Carlile's "The Joke." Gasps of recognition and emotion could be heard escaping in the audience.
The red stripe that swirls around the evening is Bond's hysterical but tough-as-toenails critiques of society, religion, and what have you, spoken in Kiki's gravelly drunken drawl. Musing on the Immaculate Conception, Kiki wonders if Mary, when impregnated by God, gave consent. She then explains the curious stuffed animal (a cow) that has been lounging on the piano near Herb the whole evening. This cow was apparently present in the manger at Jesus's birth and was made immortal after accidentally ingesting the placenta. When it comes to Christmas, it's all about what we choose to believe.
Few can match Bond's abilities as a raconteur, and this show brims with other hilarious anecdotes, including a story about a Santa Claus impersonator whom Kiki used to date "seasonally," and her fraught friendship with Sylvia Plath, who, says Kiki, habitually had her head in the oven and got in the way of making the popcorn.
But in the end, the season is really all about music and togetherness. What holiday cabaret act would be complete without a rendition of Tori Amos's "Crucify"? "Nothing I do is good enough for you!" shrieks Kiki into the void of Christmases past, present, and future, and we can all relate. She tops the tree with Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" before sending us off into the cold night, warm with the feeling of having been redeemed in some way.
Does SLEIGH signal the arrival of a new New York holiday tradition? A boy can dream. But even if not, I'm grateful now for this much-needed Christmas miracle.