Two days before the December cabaret All I Want for Christmas is a Dead Chanteuse by the Bearded Ladies, I got an email from Beards dramaturg Sally Ollove (a longtime colleague of mine who did not work on this cabaret) stipulating that this performance was not open for a traditional review because it was an “off-the-cuff” work.
Off-the-cuff or not, with a $40 ticket price for a public show at World Café Live, I’m ready to offer a review, albeit in my own style.
Ollove’s demurral is at the heart of my reaction to the evening: it under-promised and over-delivered—though the beginning of the night did not augur well. World Café Live’s website advises that if you want to eat before a show, you must make a reservation due to overwhelming demand. But when my companion and I arrived for dinner, the lounge (decorated in early Ramada Inn) was desolate. The rest of the atmosphere consisted of an hour-long playlist comprised entirely of the hoariest Christmas chestnuts imaginable. Thank goodness for duck cheesesteak and eggplant fries.
Viva la inner revolution
But when Edith Piaf (John Jarboe) swept onto the stage, the evening was transformed. Splendidly bedraggled, in a black velvet shift with white-faux fur trimming, red stiletto heels, and a beard covered in what was, at different times in the show, referred to as glitter, melted snow, or, ahem, Santa juice, Mme. Piaf was unhappy with the applause at her entrance. After a quick j’accuse, she left, re-entered, and was satisfied enough with her reception to begin.
The Bearded Ladies used to appear in an annual re-enactment on Bastille Day at Eastern State Penitentiary. Sadly, that event was discontinued a few years ago. Since our culture now embraces Christmas in July, The Bearded Ladies thought it fitting to celebrate Bastille Day in December. All I Want For Christmas Is a Dead Chanteuse was that artistic foray—a non-holiday drag cabaret at holiday time.
Of course, even if one doesn’t celebrate, the holiday season is inescapable. Acknowledging that, the theme of the evening was owning one’s power while successfully avoiding the problematic people in one’s life. Exemplifying that refusal to tarry in the problematic, Piaf explained any mistakes away by airily reminding us that she was just a dead Frenchwoman, after all.
Mme. Piaf was not only the central figure of the evening, but the hostess as well, and made the audience wonderfully uncomfortable with her risqué manner. Underneath the flirting and the teasing was a woman who wanted the audience to enjoy themselves, and that dedication to pleasure was what made the event sing. Speaking of singing, all three of the performers—Ms. Mabeline Grinchester of Whoville (Cookie Diorio) and Sr. Taneke Oratiz (Himself) of Mexico City joined Piaf—have absolutely terrific voices.
The Grinchester dimension
Even in an uncategorizable evening, some moments are more uncategorizable than others. Enter Mabeline Grinchester. Ms. Grinchester has the most nuanced and compelling backstory of any of the characters. Recently relocated from Whoville and now residing in Fishtown, Ms. Grinchester is the ex-wife of Harold Grinchester III, better known as the Grinch.
In her tea-spilling sections, Ms. Grinchester filled in some holes in the How the Grinch Stole Christmas canon, explaining that she was the power behind the man. Ms. Grinchester’s visual presentation was as meticulously detailed as her stories. Imagine a tall, kidnap-proof woman, in white vinyl boots with four-inch cube heels, wearing a cream business suit. Imagine further that this outfit is topped with a long, thick, wavy, blond wig, and Grinch-green makeup.
Once the tea was all over the table, Ms. Grinchester nodded to her bitch (Chris Davidson), who started a pre-recorded backup track on a MacBook Air. Then she began to rap, which in the context of the evening, was utterly surprising. The raps themselves had compelling lyrics, and arrived with undeniable passion. However, in her desire to make the story clear, flow was sometimes sacrificed. Regardless, out of the three characters onstage, Ms. Grinchester is the one I want to know more about, and I hope a solo show is in the offing.
All in all, it was a sweet, lovely, naughty, lusty, passionate, heartrending, and (most importantly) fun evening. If you want to walk out of a show happier than when you went in, don’t sleep on the Beards.
What, When, Where
All I Want For Christmas is A Dead Chanteuse. By The Bearded Ladies Cabaret. Directed by John Jarboe. December 7, 2019 at the World Café Live Lounge, 3025 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 222-1400 or worldcafelive.com.
World Café Live is an ADA-compliant venue, but the space has extremely heavy front doors, and the aisle down to the seating has a tricky cutout halfway down.