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Do You Want a Cookie?, the latest bacchanal from The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, embodies the Philadelphia Fringe Festival's freewheeling, party-hearty aesthetic. John Jarboe and company have commandeered a vacant warehouse in the burgeoning Spring Arts district, turning it into a living museum dedicated to the exploration of cabaret.
The evening’s title alludes to German composer Friedrich Hollaender (1896-1976), who wrote that “cabaret, like nothing else, suddenly dispenses a poison cookie.” Hollaender’s conception shapes an ideal view of an art form that blends entertainment and engagement, sexual freedom and social awareness. Good cabaret grounds itself in the personal and political and gives voice to the marginalized in times of turmoil.
Curation and creation
Jarboe and co-conceiver Sally Ollove curate an evening of local, national, and international performers, each given space to define themselves through their art. Between acts, Jarboe offers his perspective on cabaret’s history, highlighting its development in and importance to repressive cultural eras, from Weimar Berlin to present-day America. In this, he clearly owes a debt to Taylor Mac, the brilliant performance artist whose A 24-Decade History of Popular Music serves as a model for queering familiar narratives and disrupting audience expectations.
Presently, Jarboe’s contributions feel less substantial than those of the artists surrounding him. (I attended an early performance, and the show is certainly a work in progress). His act alternates between period-specific song literature and original compositions by his longtime accompanist, Heath Allen.
The imbalance pulls focus from his project’s overall mission, and Allen’s contributions are largely undistinguished. When Jarboe returns to considering cabaret history through Hollaender’s own music, it feels almost an afterthought.
Conversely, Berlin-based performer Dieter Rita Scholl evidences true cabaret style. His tall frame sheathed in a form-fitting black velvet dress (costume coordination by Rebecca Kanach), Scholl situates himself within the tradition of gender-bending, boundary-blurring German artists.
Scholl moves freely throughout the audience, intimately connecting with patrons, occasionally traversing limits of personal space. It’s a welcome contrast to Jarboe’s conception of cabaret as a safe space.
Some of Scholl’s musical choices seem hoary – how often can one hear “Lili Marleen”? – but his delivery never fails to captivate. He possesses the skill to which all performing artists should aspire: the apparent ability to stop time and make it feel as though he’s singing only to you.
Cookie takes the cake
Local chanteuse Cookie Diorio similarly entwines the personal and political. She uses her potent, penetrating voice – ably supported by musical director Amanda Morton on piano – to avow her right to take up space in the world and live as her authentic self.
She powerfully revises the lyrics to “I Am Changing,” from the musical Dreamgirls, transforming the song from a reflection on past mistakes to an anthem of self-love. “I’ll be better than I am” becomes “God loves me just the way I am” – and when Diorio sings those words, you believe her.
Diorio’s Philly compatriots don’t all fare as well. Mary Tuomanen continues to reveal a wealth of musical talents; should any theater decide to stage a biography of Edith Piaf, she’s your ringer. But her overlong meditation on nostalgia, regret, and death – alternately performed in French and English – ends up on the wrong side of twee.
Jess Conda confidently proclaims herself a descendant of Bette Midler and Elaine Stritch, an assertion not supported by her talents. A self-described “cabaret artist from Philadelphia,” she shows little aptitude for text work, pumping her volume rather than caressing her words. A half-bleated, half-screamed rendition of Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song” proves particularly inept.
A half-dozen other artists flit in and out of the overlong evening, and the lineups will vary at each subsequent performance. Whether they, or Jarboe, succeed in presenting the history of cabaret remains to be seen. For now, his poison cookie could use a little more spice.
What, When, Where
Do You Want a Cookie? Co-conceived by John Jarboe and Sally Ollove, Jarboe directed. The Bearded Ladies Cabaret. Through September 16, 2018, at 448 N. 10th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
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