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Wow, Catherine Cohen Has an Amazing Voice

On a warm night in June, Catherine Cohen stepped onto the stage at Joe’s Pub in a red silk jumpsuit and cat-eye sunglasses, her puff of long brown hair swept off her face, and approached the microphone. “Hell-ooo,” she trilled. “Wow. I have an amazing voice.”

It was the comedian’s first show at Joe’s Pub, the cozy cabaret venue at the Public Theater, and the crowd was packed and pumped. As audience members sipped cocktails, Cohen tossed her hair, removed her sunglasses, and jumped into her first song, an introductory number in which she explains, “Boys never wanted to kiss me/So now I do comedy.”

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“Wasn’t it so fun?” Cohen remarks when I meet her, a couple weeks later, at a fashionably austere café in Prospect Heights. Dressed in a lime-green tank top and yellow skirt, the 26-year-old is still feeling the high of her show — her first with a full band — which she titled after one of her tweets: “The Twist? … She’s Gorgeous.” The show sold out so quickly, the venue immediately added another, on July 31 — which, at press time, is itself very nearly sold out. Not bad for a girl who used to obsessively scroll through YouTube videos of Joe’s Pub performances as a high-schooler in Houston, Texas. Five years after landing in New York City, Cohen is already ticking items off her bucket list. It’s probably not much of a twist to note that she’s really fucking funny. Our coffees arrive, and she pauses before answering one of my questions. “There was literally a bug on my hand. Like, hello!”

Through short, peppy original songs written with her pianist, Henry Koperski, Cohen both channels and satirizes the joys and frustrations of the young New York woman. The music itself ranges in style from jazzy lounge numbers to perky show tunes to pumping disco anthems, depending on what Cohen is lampooning. Her style isn’t far afield from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom, who shot to fame on the basis of satirical songs she’d post on YouTube. Cohen’s act also calls to mind a less vulnerable Lena Dunham, or a more animated Amy Schumer — both of whom Cohen cites as inspiration, along with other funny women like Bridget Everett (a Joe’s Pub regular), Greta Gerwig, Molly Shannon, and Melissa McCarthy. “I don’t ever want to see anything that doesn’t have a female lead,” she admits, laughing. “I don’t care.”

Cohen did musical theater in high school before studying English and theater at Princeton; her parents work in business, she says, but have always been supportive of her creative aspirations. “They’re both very funny,” she adds. Like any fresh-out-of-college New York transplant with comedic aspirations, Cohen took classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. But she found her creative footing by being herself. She did some characters — she first hooked up with Koperski a couple years ago to write an original song for a character she was trying out, Imogen Dragons, a ukulele-sporting singer with a “yogurt-y indie girl voice” — and had precisely one straight musical-theater audition when she first arrived in the city after graduating from Princeton in 2013. “I went to one audition and I was like, kill me, end my one life,” she recalls. “It was forty women who looked like me in a room wearing the same outfit, waiting for twelve hours to sing one second of ‘Gimme Gimme’ from Thoroughly Modern Millie. I was like, this is not my scene.”

Instead, she’s created her own scene, producing and hosting a weekly comedy show called Cabernet Cabaret at Club Cumming, the East Village hangout that actor/singer Alan Cumming opened last fall. (At one recent show, Cohen made a dramatic entrance, parting the red velvet curtains behind the club’s tiny stage and issuing a request in a voice dripping with grandeur: “There’s some natural light pouring in from the back and I simply cannot have that.”) It was there that she workshopped the songs that make up her one-woman show, which she also performed at Caroline’s on Broadway in the spring as part of their breakout artists series. Cumming, who calls himself a “major fan,” describes Cohen’s humor as “a sort of hybrid of character and confession which cuts a raw, deep, side-splitting incision into the vein of urban contemporary existence.”

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Cohen pays the bills doing voiceover work in “commercials for female-oriented products,” as she puts it — past stints include Olay, Schick razors, and Special K; basically any product for which a woman in a flowing white dress might appear in an ad, beckoning the prospective customer with promises of youth, beauty, and a tight ass. Her act befits a woman who is the voice of feminine consumerism but knows deep down that it’s a con job. “Voiceover me is a cool, sexy chick who knows what’s up and doesn’t give a shit,” Cohen says. “And comedy me, like, could not care more.” In her songs, Cohen plays a heightened version of herself — “a total cartoon of this glamorous woman I dreamed of being.” Her songs go down surprisingly winding roads; one breezy number about the magic of springtime devolves into an extended fantasy about murdering a guy who once touched her lower back at a party and made a joke about raping her.

Quoting Cohen doesn’t do her justice, though. It’s her delivery that kills, her ability to slip in and out of voices and personas — from a nasally hot-baby-girl squeal to a British-inflected grand dame to a whispery, seen-it-all vixen of the city — like they’re so many silk robes. Her dominant tone is a kind of self-contempt laced through with humblebrags: I’m such a mess; isn’t it adorable? The fact that Cohen has a legitimately lovely, and versatile, singing voice, only makes the tunes funnier. She’s doing something similar to what Lena Dunham did when she burst forth on the scene with the groundbreaking Girls in 2012 — self-deprecation as survival, weaponizing her perceived flaws before anyone can use them against her, all while making it very hard for critics to deny her talent and vision.

When I mention that her act reminds me of Dunham, Cohen tenses for a moment: “Do you hate her?” In the years since HBO premiered Girls, Dunham has become a punching bag for men and women, left and right, but I assure Cohen that no, I think Dunham’s a genius. “That’s how I feel,” Cohen says. “I totally get that she’s done some stupid shit; she’s a person. But at the end of the day, what she’s done is so groundbreaking. I get emotional even thinking about it because when I saw that first episode of Girls when I was in college, and I saw her body and I saw her fucking and talking about sex and enjoying it, I was like, if I had seen this when I was in high school I would have thought about myself totally differently.”

Catherine Cohen

Like Dunham, and Schumer, and so many other comedians Cohen admires, she’s determined to create a space for herself. Maybe she’ll land a role in a TV show, or, more likely, write one herself. If she “books,” she may travel to Los Angeles. “I want to go back and forth,” she declares, “gorgeously.” She rattles off a list of her faves, her inspo, her mental mood board: “Jenny Slate; I’m so obsessed with her. Insecure is so fucking good. Fleabag, are you serious? I Love Dick, amazing. I want to make something like that, just showing different kinds of women, how fucking cool they all are. And how funny and smart and human they are.”

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The Endless Adolescence of Mx Justin Vivian Bond

Last Saturday at Joe’s Pub, at the 9 p.m. performance of Mx America, Justin Vivian Bond stood onstage silently “modeling” for two minutes. In a glittery pink dress, Mx Bond shifted between poses — coquettish, demure, self-conscious — amid the gleeful laughter of the audience. Playing the part of Mx America, a girlish but knowing former beauty queen with a slight Southern drawl, Vivian told the crowd, “I’m an aspirational white woman of elegance.”

The joke, of course, is Mx America’s delusion: An older woman is asking the audience to assess and reassess her; the room laughs — an aging trans woman is convinced she is beautiful. The many personas of v (Vivian’s long-preferred gender pronoun, though lately v also uses “they” and “she”) — including Mx America and Kiki DuRane, an alcoholic, aging burlesque singer — are equal parts self-aggrandizing and self-loathing, glamorous and heartbreaking. As Mx America told the crowd later that night, bathed in pink light, “My friend Billy’s father once said you could measure the depth of a person’s tragedy by the amount of distance between how they see themselves and how they’re seen by others.” She paused to take a sip of her white wine on the rocks. “As an American and as a trans person, I find this hypothesis to be really interesting.”

When Vivian and I meet at a bar to discuss v’s simultaneous retrospectives, at Joe’s Pub and the Participant Inc. gallery, v quickly turns the meeting from an interview with this writer into a conversation with an acquaintance (we had met briefly once before). And anyway, three decades into v’s career, Vivian doesn’t seem comfortable with authority.

“For the first time in my life,” v says, “only since I started being more vocal about my trans identity, I feel like I can be vulnerable.”

Vivian’s rare gift is the ability to perform parody and honesty through the same character. Skewering contemporary, privileged white womanhood is not mutually exclusive with letting the audience glimpse v’s uncertain identity.

Midway through Mx America, v recounted the story of v’s first visit to the Hamptons since beginning to take estrogen. “What would a middle-aged white woman do in Sag Harbor?” v asked the audience sheepishly. “I know. I know what I’ll do. I’ll go to a stationery store.”

“I call myself an aspirational white woman of elegance,” v clarifies as we wait for our second round of martinis, “because I know I’ll never succeed at being a white woman of elegance.”

Vivian was born in 1963 in the drab, predominantly white middle-class suburb of Hagerstown, Maryland. “My mother and father are the safest people you’ve ever met,” v says.

Vivian performing <i>Dixie McCall's Patterns for Living</i> in September 2015
Vivian performing Dixie McCall’s Patterns for Living in September 2015

V was assigned male at birth, but v’s interest in and tendency toward femininity was the subject of confusion and harassment from early on. A young Justin first “communed” with the name Vivian when v was assigned a report on a famous American for a ninth-grade history class. Instead of writing about a man, as v’s teacher recommended, v went with movie star Vivien Leigh, the British actress famous for playing Scarlett O’Hara. Though she appeared to be a picture-perfect starlet, refined and feminine, Leigh was in fact unrepentantly bisexual, mowing through ingenues and rough trade she picked up on the streets of London and Los Angeles. (The history paper was mostly about Leigh’s schoolyard lesbianism.)

V eventually took Vivian as a middle name in 2011; by then v was already a patron saint of transgressive femininity, having spent the past two decades playing Kiki DuRane to gay audiences around the world. Kiki was an homage to another white woman of elegance from Viv’s past: a college roommate’s mother, a former burlesque performer who carried her early glamour with her into addiction and motherhood. “She was just this radical woman,” Vivian explains. “She went back to get her degree in social work and then got cancer. Even when she was missing her teeth and bald, she was still doing the soft-shoe in the bedroom.”

In the early Nineties, in the wake of the AIDS crisis, Mx Bond, then simply known as Justin Bond, brought Kiki DuRane to life in San Francisco, accompanied by a maximalist gay pianist named Herb, played by Kenny Mellman. Their campy humor — Kiki’s inebriated monologues weaving together pop culture and immeasurable grief — gave gay audiences something to laugh about during tragedy.

[pullquote]’V and I share an identity: Peter Pan'[/pullquote]

Kiki & Herb gradually shed its cult status over the course of the decade, eventually landing billings at Carnegie Hall, in 2004, and the Sydney Opera House, in 2007; that same year, Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway was nominated for a Tony.

The success of Kiki & Herb was a lifelong dream, but eventually the acclaim became oppressive. The show’s fans were loyal and obsessive — as they continue to be; the upcoming reprise of Kiki & Herb at Joe’s Pub sold out in just over two hours — but more mainstream visibility didn’t allow Vivian certain freedoms v needed in order to feel as though v was continually experimenting with v’s art and identity. (For v, it seems, these are one and the same.)

“Those were goals I had,” v told me. “I achieved those goals, and then I realized that they weren’t fully satisfying. They didn’t make me happy. I was doing a lot of things I didn’t like doing. I was doing a lot of coke. I was buying a lot of shoes.”

So, in 2008, Vivian retired the act. Around the same time, v fell in love with a radical queer named Nath Ann, twenty years v’s junior, and followed him to a queer land project in rural British Columbia, where v, Nath Ann, and their radical faerie friends ran naked through the woods unrestricted.

The relationship liberated v creatively. “If I’d been with a middle-aged gay lover, they would have been like, ‘What do you mean you’re quitting [Kiki & Herb]? You can’t quit,’ ” Vivian said. “But for Nath Ann it was like, ‘Well, yeah, that’s bullshit.’ Most people who are my age want to be comfortable. They want to relax, to have security and their path worked out. As an artist, I like to be surrounded by energetic people who want to experience the world and constantly be reinterpreting it.”

V went from dating Nath Ann to another relationship with a younger man: Jeremy, a cute, polite, young man in glasses (v calls him a “nerd”) whom v had harbored a crush on for eight years prior to their relationship.

The cover of the March 23, 2016, <i>Village Voice</i>
The cover of the March 23, 2016, Village Voice

In the past decade, over the course of these two defining relationships, v also made the decision to begin taking hormones and publicly come out, or rather, clarify v’s trans identity.

One of the wisdoms that Mx Justin Vivian Bond imparts, as a performer and a friend, is that authenticity is not some singular, stable place. Though Vivian is 52 years old, not just cult famous but famous famous, v is obviously more interested in experimentation than calcification.

The author and performer Kate Bornstein, close friends with Vivian for almost thirty years, describes v as “the most beautiful boy, the most beautiful girl, the most beautiful woman, the most beautiful man.”

Though Bornstein is older than Vivian — she acted as a big sister and mentor to Vivian when v started performing — she says she often feels like v’s younger brother. “V allows me the space to play,” Bornstein explains over the phone. “V and I share an identity that I don’t always get to be, which is boy. Not man, not masculine: Peter Pan.”

Midway through our second martini, Jeremy joins us. Our first topic of conversation is pornography: inflatables (Vivian likes that); “dad on boy” (Jeremy and myself); the pleasure of the cameraperson speaking directly to the performer (this, we all agree on). Vivian expresses ethical uncertainty about v’s interest in “she-male” porn. “It’s not politically correct,” v says, “but I like to see people having sex that, at the very least, have my body parts.”

Outside with Jeremy and Vivian after drinks, smoking in the alley behind Joe’s Pub, v teasingly refers to Jeremy as a “fag.” Looking to understand their dynamic, I ask, “Do you want Jeremy to be a fag?”

“Of course not,” Vivian says. “I don’t want Jeremy to be anything.” Why be anything when you can be everything?

 

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Q Train Occult: Coney Island Native Carol Lipnik’s Music Weaves Spells From the Strange

Stepping out of the Stillwell Avenue subway station on Coney Island is like arriving at the end of the world, the roller coasters and the Wonder Wheel rising like leviathans over the lip of the known universe. The neighborhood’s mid-twentieth-century dilapidation created many of its uncanny spaces, like those depicted in Walter Hill’s 1979 cult favorite The Warriors, in which the run-down theme park provides sanctuary for the scrappy, tired gang of the title as they return home after an all-night trek from the Bronx. That’s how singer-songwriter Carol Lipnik describes the Coney Island of her youth: a place at its nadir, but nonetheless an asylum from the foreboding world beyond its borders. “I really developed this appreciation for the aesthetic of ruin,” she says. “Desolation. Strangeness. Being a redhead, I felt even more like an outcast — and Coney Island is sort of the land of the outsider, the freak.”

Despite actually being a matter of just a few miles, it feels as though Lipnik has come a long way from her Coney Island roots. Her decades-long career as one of New York’s most inventive singers and performance artists now brings her to Manhattan, where she performs regularly in the East Village, including a residency at Joe’s Pub throughout March. Still, she carries with her the sensibilities of her home base back in Brooklyn, the great heights and vast depths her otherworldly voice finds both on stage and on her latest record, Almost Back to Normal. A colorful shawl draped around her shoulders, her hands dazzlingly bejeweled, Lipnik commands her audience like a sort of downtown Joni Mitchell — a witch whose sound is as powerful as it is strange.

Lipnik hasn’t always conjured mood through song (though Mitchell has long been an influence on her work). She studied visual art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the Arts Students League in Manhattan and describes her early work as being “very dark and spacey,” much like the music she now creates. “I knew in the back of my mind that I had this voice,” she admits, naming singer-songwriters like Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan as forces that ultimately shaped her aesthetic. (Listening to those artists was “a revelation to me that music could be poetic,” she says.) Her training in visual arts proved useful, too, as it eventually established her musical process. “I approach the melody that I’m singing as an outline,” she says, “and it’s very much like drawing — but drawing with your voice. It comes from the same impulse, only I can just do it in real time with people sitting there.”

Although you can get a taste of Lipnik’s abilities on her records, her live performances give the fullest accounting of her powers. She often sings in intimate cabaret performances, which allows her to connect completely with the audience before her — this despite struggling with stage fright before each of her shows (“A little bit of bourbon helps,” she quips). Lipnik finds a way to put herself at ease on stage through the process of vanishing — a technique she pulls from the memory of being enveloped by open sky and ocean out on Coney Island. “It’s a glorious feeling,” she explains, “to know that you’re that unimportant.”

More important to Lipnik are the characters created by her songs, figures she can inhabit within a different space and time. “Once I’m on the stage, something takes over me: I get to be an actor,” she says. Despite the sense that she’s hovering a few feet above the rest of us — an impression abetted by her relaxed persona, fiery red hair, and tendency to speak in metaphor — she grounds herself, and her work, in the present. “I sing a lot about nature and desolation and the feral quality of human nature — a big subject now, as we’re seeing in this election [cycle].”

That savage impulse rears its head when Lipnik sings her song “Crow’s Nest.” “You can shake this tree,” she chants, “but you can’t make me ever come down.” In lieu of a chorus, she looses a piercing, lonely, outsize blast of sound, a banshee’s wail that, she explains, comes from two distinct places: “a Russian-Jewish thing…the ‘oy, oy, oy, woe is me,’ ” as well as her sense of humor. “There’s something comical about being on a stage in front of a roomful of people,” she says, pointing up a comparison between the need for attention and the wild stubbornness of which she sings. When Lipnik performs Harry Nilsson’s “Life Line,” the goofily romantic ditty transforms into a sorrowful dirge. “Hello-lo-lo-lo,” she sings, the echoes of a siren trapped in a cavern of loss, her only way out to call to a lover to save her. “Is there anybody else here?”

We often search for an external push to keep ourselves moving forward, to keep from getting frozen in place. It’s the thing that allows us to quiet the voices inside our heads, the inner critics that stifle us. “It all comes back to the same thing: self-consciousness,” Lipnik says. “Self-consciousness is the devil. When you disappear, you have no self-consciousness, so those voices of self-doubt are not yelling in your head.” Disappearing, the chance to float away through song, is what keeps Lipnik alive and kicking — and the adrenaline rush is addictive. “It’s sort of like riding the Cyclone, you know?” she says. “The whole time you’re riding and thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m going to die!’ And when you’re done, you’re like, ‘I want to do that again.’ ”

 

Catch Lipnik at Joe’s Pub on March 10 and 17.

 

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Sarah Stiles Dips Her Toe in Darkness With New Cabaret ‘Squirrel Heart’

One might think that after battling a demonic hand puppet for ten months, a performer would want to ease into the new year with some relative peace and quiet. But dealing with onstage darkness has come easily for Sarah Stiles, who earned a Tony nomination last spring for her role as Jessica in the satirical play Hand to God. She is no stranger to the emotional complexities — and extreme biological urges — of puppets (she starred in the double role of Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut in Avenue Q), and her turn as Little Red Riding Hood in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods involved a particularly traumatic sexual encounter with an amorous wolf.

All that seems incongruous with Stiles’s offstage demeanor, which is charming, delightful, and bubbly. It’s that girlish charisma that’s also possibly to blame for her frequent casting as what she describes as “angsty teenage girls.” Now the 36-year-old performer is making an effort to tap into her own personal adult energy with her upcoming show, Squirrel Heart, which premieres at Joe’s Pub on February 8.

Despite being caught in a semi- permanent adolescence onstage, Stiles has had the typical career of a thirtysomething working actress: Growing up in New Hampshire, she attended theater camp early on, after her fifth-grade teacher noticed her propensity for turning any school project into a play. Community theater — and “8 million productions of Annie and The Wizard of Oz” — followed. She dropped out of high school in her senior year and started working in the administrative office of her local theater — with the full support of her parents. ” ‘Supportive’ would be a weird word,” she says, explaining that her parents were both creative in spirit. “They weren’t pushing me in any direction…they sort of let me do whatever I wanted.”

She made her way to New York, enrolling in the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. By the time she was done with the year-long program, she felt that she was familiar with the city — “or the Upper West Side, at least,” she says. A few years later, she made her Broadway debut — albeit slightly obscured by the puppets on her arm — in Avenue Q. She then understudied for roles in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee before eventually joining the national tour.

None of these were bad gigs by any means, and the roles came pretty easily to Stiles. “I still wouldn’t say I knew what I was doing,” she admits. “I was going purely off of instinct. I could get by because I had a good voice and I was funny, but I didn’t know what I was doing.” It was while she was touring with Spelling Bee that she began taking voice lessons with actress and singer Sally Wilfert. Upon her return to New York, she started to get serious. She landed a role in the Off-Broadway musical Vanities at the Second Stage Theater, which coincided with two major life events: turning thirty and getting divorced.

It was a complicated time in her life, she says, being in the middle of a show and having to acknowledge that she and her husband, who lived in Washington, D.C., were going their separate ways. She began taking acting lessons, which were as therapeutic as they were constructive. “I thought, ‘I have all of these feelings!’ ” she says. “I had to channel them somewhere.”

Vanities, which follows three former cheerleaders from their teenage years to middle age, was the first of a string of shows that featured Stiles playing a character nearly half her real-life age. Another Broadway show followed, the forgettable revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in which Stiles was lost in the ensemble amid a headache-inducing, psychedelic set. The outdoor production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods — in which Stiles’s Little Red sported a roller derby getup — earned more attention, thanks largely to the show’s anticipated revival (and to A-list co-stars Amy Adams, Denis O’Hare, and Donna Murphy). And though critical response to the production was mixed, Stiles’s performance, as the precocious little girl who turns quickly from a naive child to a vengeful wolf- killing and giant-hunting renegade, was one of the show’s highlights.

The part in Hand to God came in the spring of 2014; the production transferred to Broadway the following year for an impressive run that lasted nearly eleven months — a feat for a new American play lacking the star wattage boasted by its competition. Not to mention its dark subject matter: Hand to God follows a shy, sullen teenager named Jason and his sock puppet, Tyrone, the latter of whom may or may not be possessed by the devil. Stiles’s Jessica is practically the heroine of the show: While the adults prove they’re just as incapable and lost as the poor kid with the demon attached to his arm, Jessica manages to save the day by distracting Tyrone with — what else? — the sexual charms of her own comely hand puppet, Jolene. (There’s a long scene that features the two teenagers quietly getting to know each other while their puppets furiously copulate just below them.)

Despite the over-the-top elements of the play, Stiles says the role grounded her. “Jessica is so strong, and she respects herself,” she says. “To be able to do that every night, and to be confident and be still…. It was really good for me. I’m a little bit more bonkers. That’s what I love about being an actress: The parts you play teach you things.”

After ending her run in Hand to God, she began working on her debut cabaret act with collaborator Holly Gewandter, who had previously worked with Stiles on a reading of Gewandter’s musical, Cinderella: The Real True Story. It was Gewandter, in fact, who suggested that Stiles put together a nightclub act. Working with director Darren Katz and musical director Brian Nash, Stiles has developed what she considers a new work of theater — full of covers and mash-ups, an original song, and a long, personal piece centered on a poem she wrote. “What I love about this art form is that it can be anything it wants to be,” she says, dropping names of current downtown performers like Molly Pope, Erin Markey, and Natalie Joy Johnson as her contemporary influences. Of course, she cites another cabaret titan who helped establish the form as we see it today: Bette Midler. “I am always impressed with people who are brave enough to get up there onstage, by themselves, practically, and do what they want to do and express themselves authentically.”

While she has her collaborators, Stiles’s cabaret vision is a solo affair — and a delightfully manic one. She says she’ll have a host of outfit changes. (“I’m going to look like one of those Russian dolls,” she jokes.) And yes, there will be puppets. But she’s most excited to “get real honest.”

“It’s my own chance to dip my toe in darkness,” she says. “Well, darkness wrapped in bubblegum.” When told that it’s hard to imagine her being a dark person, she waits a perfectly timed beat before replying. “Oh, all the bubbly ones are.”

Sarah Stiles’s Squirrel Heart opens at Joe’s Pub on February 8. For ticket information, click here.

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The Diva, The Sex Symbol, The Rocker: Sandra Bernhard Wants to ‘Be Everything’

Sandra Bernhard is an intimidating interview subject. Anyone familiar with the comedian and actress knows that she’s unapologetically brash and outspoken, having made more than a few enemies as a result of her satirical take on the narcissistic qualities of American celebrity culture. A quick search on YouTube yields scores of old clips, a good number of them from Bernhard’s many appearances on Late Night With David Letterman in the Eighties, where she’d often derail the host’s attempts at an interview or do things like drag then-BFF Madonna to the taping (their friendship was tabloid-friendly and, apparently, short-lived); Bernhard recently admitted that she eventually stopped getting invited back. Or how about this: After critic Laurie Stone wrote that she was “petty and bilious” in a Village Voice review of Bernhard’s Off-Broadway hit, Without You I’m Nothing, the performer started to trash Stone in her act, even incorporating a message Stone left on her answering machine into the show, until Stone took legal action.

Then there’s the fact that Bernhard is a celebrity herself. She’s the best kind of celebrity: not mega-famous, not unreachable, but still the type who is easily recognized when she’s walking on the street in Chelsea, mixing with midtown businessmen while taking an elevator down from the SiriusXM offices (her show, Sandyland, airs daily on Andy Cohen’s Radio Andy channel), or riding the subway. Her acting career has featured some major highlights: a plum part in Martin Scorsese’s dark satire The King of Comedy, a regular role on Roseanne, and recent appearances on Switched at Birth, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and 2 Broke Girls.

But it’s her work as a comedian that is her most impressive. Without You I’m Nothing would go on to be produced as a feature film, while I’m Still Here…Damn It! took Bernhard to Broadway. The latter show was also filmed, concert-style, as an HBO special; Bernhard, at the time several months pregnant with her daughter, Cicely, wears a sheer, see-through dress. Of course, by that point, the comedian was used to baring a lot of herself in public. Without You I’m Nothing, a strange blend of monologues and songs, ends with the performer removing an American flag from her shoulders to reveal only pasties and a G-string. Then she dances to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”

As it turns out, the Sandra Bernhard on stage, on film, or on radio is a lot different from the Sandra Bernhard who’s off the mic. She’s softer in person, possessed of a relaxed sensibility that hails, she says, from the simple need to take a break from the act of performing. “As the years go on,” Bernhard, now sixty, says, “you don’t have time to stay in character. When you’re with friends or people you actually want to get to know, of course you’re going to drop the artifice and be more accessible.”

[pullquote]’I think I’m established [enough] at this point that people expect me to be someone they can come to as a barometer for whatever madness is happening in the world.'[/pullquote]

It’s a comfort to hear, especially given the bold-faced names in which she’s shown interest (and at whom she’s thrown shade) throughout her career. At the same time, you sort of hope to get some of the surly Bernhard you’ve seen on stage and screen; after all, to be poked by Sandra Bernhard almost means you’ve made it, too, that you’ve contributed something to the culture of fame she skewers from her perch just within its borders. And she knows her audience, even away from the spotlight. “Yeah, I still throw little bits of it when I’m meeting people and they want a little somethin’ special,” she says. “I don’t want to disappoint people.”

She claims that her own celebrity status is almost unquantifiable. “I think I’m established [enough] at this point that people expect me to be someone they can come to as a barometer for whatever madness happens to be happening in the world,” she says. “But it’s hard to know where you are in the pantheon, especially now because there are so many people doing similar things on the internet or onstage.”

Bernhard was a trendsetter. She didn’t invent the concept of blending stand-up comedy and cabaret, creating some new kind of performance style, but she most certainly brought it to the mainstream. The amalgamation is one she’s been exploiting ever since she got her start in Los Angeles in the Seventies. “Even when I was doing my rudimentary comedy club performances,” she says, “sometimes there would be a piano player and I would close with a song.” She always loved singing, and she took advantage of a freedom that allowed her to weave her wry, satirical observations and monologues in with thematic musical choices — something she describes now as “a strange, postmodern musical.”

That, perhaps inevitably, consigned her to the fringes of stand-up comedy: The attention she’d receive throughout the Eighties notwithstanding, here was a multihyphenate performer whose work was difficult to classify. Being a woman also resulted in a critical misunderstanding of her work, which was often described as “bitter.” “I don’t think they had seen a woman doing what I did back then,” Bernhard says. “I never thought of my work as ‘bitter.’ ” Instead, she offers a list of more appropriate adjectives: satirical, ironic, tough, combative. “No one had seen a woman be startling like that before.”

Still, that’s all just the beginning when it comes to defining her staunch and assertive performance style. Bernhard almost aggressively pokes at her audience, too, daring them not to like her. This is who I am, she seems to say. Deal with it or fuck off. It’s the kind of tenacity that confers iconic status (particularly within the gay community), but it also makes her stand out among female comedians. Indeed, Bernhard avoids self-deprecation at all costs and admits she doesn’t have much patience for the contemporary cohort of women in comedy. “Most of it’s about these single girls dating and, like, ‘I’m drunk and I just woke up and somebody came all over my face,’ ” she says. “I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. It’s not sophisticated, and I have disdain for it.” Her heroes, she says, were second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and rock icons like Janis Joplin and Ann and Nancy Wilson. “It was just a matter of fact,” she says. “That was who they were, and they just kept barreling through the roadblocks. That’s how I’ve always approached my work, my career, and my life.”

[pullquote]’The page of the calendar flips, and you’ve got to flip with it.'[/pullquote]

Bernhard tries to embody that fearlessness — and typically it pays off. Even when the conversation comes around to the current state of comedy in the second wave of political correctness, Bernhard brushes it all off. “I don’t spend that much time thinking about it, because I don’t want to rehash things that have already been discussed,” she says. “I don’t think that people are very smart, and they don’t have a sense of history. The times change; you change. The page of the calendar flips, and you’ve got to flip with it.”

The show on Radio Andy gives her the chance to stay fresh; it also means she’s performing daily, as both host and interviewer. On a recent episode, she had her former Roseanne co-star Laurie Metcalf on to chat about her role in the Broadway production of Misery. When the mics were turned off, the two hugged and caught each other up with stories of their kids. Once she was on air, Bernhard turned right back on: singing along to Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel” and gushing over Metcalf’s broad and unstoppable acting talent. It felt like a throwback to older talk shows, when it was less about having a guest on to promote a new movie and more about two interesting people gabbing about whatever wacky notions popped into their minds.

“I want to be everything,” Bernhard says. “I want to be the diva, I want to be the sex symbol, I want to be the rock ‘n’ roller.” She’s all those things, plus casually glamorous and indomitable. And as a performer, she’s maintained the ability to bring joy and be freshly provocative at the same time. “I never set out to shock,” she says, reiterating that everything she does serves to suit herself first. “I set out to entertain. I set out to have fun.”

Sandra Bernhard: Feel the Bernhard runs at Joe’s Pub December 26–31. For ticket information, click here.

 

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The Perfect Fete: Elaine Paige, Molly Pope & More Celebrate 100 Years of Edith Piaf

How can any tribute match the impassioned artistry of Édith Piaf? As we saw in the event marking what would have been Frank Sinatra’s birthday on CBS on December 3, a Whitman’s Sampler of musical categories is too scattershot — but a night of carbon copies would be even worse.

On December 19, when Piaf (A Centennial Celebration) marks the hundredth year of the Little Sparrow, the nine divas onstage at Town Hall will present a cross-section of musical theater, but they all share the same deep familiarity with and respect for France’s most beloved singer. Even amid an all-star cast that includes Christine Ebersole and cabaret legend Marilyn Maye, the biggest get is undoubtedly Elaine Paige, the “greatest white female singer in the world,” according to Ella Fitzgerald.

If the name barely rings a bell, that’s not surprising. Though revered in London as the “first lady of British theater,” Paige never managed to establish a beachhead on Broadway. When her long-awaited debut finally arrived in 1996, it was in the ill-starred West End transfer of Sunset Boulevard. Her only other appearance was as part of the ensemble in the 2011 revival of Follies.

The real tragedy is that Piaf, a play with fifteen songs, proved so punishing that Paige had to cut short the 1993 production of it; moving it across the pond was out of the question. And this despite the fact that she truly inhabited the tortured soul of the singer who brought the music of the streets into Paris’s cabarets and concert halls.

Paige tells the Voice that she came to identify strongly with the chanteuse after several months of researching Piaf’s life and artistry, including a long stint in Paris. “There’s a lot about her life and beliefs that are not dissimilar to me,” she says. “We are exactly the same height and are physically similar. She was also driven and very passionate about her music. She had a great sense of humor and liked to hang with her own kind, not the glitterati. But she was also very vulnerable and came from a poverty-stricken background.”

A visit to Charles Aznavour’s apartment finally gave her the confidence that she could convey the way Piaf’s music reflected her own intensity and turmoil. The singer, who had composed for Piaf, “had a beautiful grand piano,” Paige recalls. “Much to my astonishment, he asked me to sing. He sat down and played a song he wrote for her. ‘It’s do or die,’ I thought. Fortunately, he was thrilled. He threw his arms around me.”

If hardly at a Piaf level of angst, Paige keeps her own life at the plangent pitch necessary for an adored diva. Her dramatic announcements of retirement followed by comeback tours are beginning to approach Cher’s record. (Yes, she tells the Voice, she “may be coming back” to the States next year.)

Piaf began singing in the streets to keep from starving. Paige’s childhood was hardly that Dickensian, but she had been treading the board for a decade in 1976 when she began to despair that she would never achieve her dreams of stardom. A chance encounter with Dustin Hoffman produced some advice that looks prescient in retrospect. “Early in my career,” she recalls, “he told me if I had to, to sing in the street like Piaf.”

[pullquote]Paige on Piaf: ‘There’s a lot about her life and beliefs that are not dissimilar to [mine].'[/pullquote]

The next year, she had the luckiest of breaks: the lead in what became the season’s hottest ticket, Evita. Her magnificent voice and acting chops catapulted her career into the stratosphere. In Follies, she brought down the house every night with “I’m Still Here,” and her original version of “Memories” from Cats is equally memorable — but Evita remains her signature role, even if she certainly is “still here.”

Piaf gives New Yorkers a rare opportunity to experience the effect that Paige — who has given just two non-Broadway New York performances over the entire span of her career — has on audiences. We have impresario Daniel Nardicio to thank for that. Long known for producing some of the raunchiest gay parties in town, he branched out to Fire Island several years ago. After being rebuffed by club owners in Fire Island Pines, he moved a quarter-mile west to the more modest gay community of Cherry Grove. For years, every Friday night, the buff boys of the Pines have trekked over to the Grove’s ramshackle disco, the Ice Palace, for his massive underwear parties.

Then, a few years ago, Nardicio began booking talent, including a pre–”Poker Face” Lady Gaga. What really bumped up his cred in the gay world and beyond was bringing Alan Cumming and Liza Minnelli to the Grove. Since then, he’s made it his mission to introduce divas like Carol Channing and Chita Rivera to a new generation of gay men — even if he often isn’t sure whom he’s booking.

“I love talent, but I’m definitely not a devotee of Broadway, to be sure,” Nardicio tells the Voice. “Sometimes I have to look them up to see who they are when I work with them. The guys who work for me are all show queens, which helps.”

The Piaf concert began as an idea birthed in Cumming’s car, where Piaf was playing over the speakers during a road trip. On a whim, he called Town Hall to see if the date nearest her birthday was available. To his surprise, it was. “Then,” he says, “I started the whole process of piecing it together.” He enlisted Andy Brattain, Michael Feinstein’s production assistant, to come up with some names. Brattain brought in the American Pops Orchestra, but Nardicio was the one who thought of asking Paige.

“I’ve worked with a lot of grandes dames,” he says. “Frankly, everyone has told me there’s nothing like an Elaine Paige performance. So I asked, and she enthusiastically jumped on board.”

For Australian cabaret star Meow Meow, the attraction to Piaf was the opportunity to explore her “exquisite pain of longing.” “She wasn’t just a singer, but a storyteller — so much drama packed into two or three minutes.” But it’s worth noting that Piaf’s signature song, “La Vie en Rose,” is an ode to the joys of life. “People look for the tragedy,” Meow Meow says. “It says a lot about what an audience wants that she’s always seen in a tragic light.”

Vivian Reed, for her part, was originally trained to be a classical singer at Juilliard but found herself attracted to the story-songs that are cabaret staples. A seven-year sojourn in France and a French manager, Lionel Lavault, inevitably got her interested in Piaf’s repertoire. “I’m particularly drawn to performers who live their lyrics, make them come alive for the audience,” she says. “She was known for that. She was a dramatic performer; that’s what I’ve always liked about her.”

With two recent Piaf tributes at Feinstein’s/54 Below under her belt, downtown cabaret favorite Molly Pope “was thrilled” to be asked — even though she worries about her French pronunciation. “I’m a bit of an amateur Francophile,” she says. “When I started taking French at Cooper Union, the teacher asked if I was a singer. Singers move their mouths more violently, like the French. I know some French people and fully intend to have them coach me.”

To help segue between songs and singers, TCM host Robert Osborne will be on hand at Town Hall to provide connecting anecdotes. Nardicio promises that this will indeed be a celebration that emphasizes the glorious triumphs of Piaf’s checkered life — none of that bathetic Judy Garland stuff. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t stuffy,” Nardicio says.

The Town Hall event marks another step in Nardicio’s own evolution from hot boys in underwear to divas in diamonds (or diamanté). He calls his beloved divas his “Norma Desmonds,” but maybe it’s because he’s had some Norma Desmond moments of his own. “Someone said to me, ‘You used to be huge,’ ” he says. “I’m working on a TV project with Alan. It’s not going to be so much about throwing parties. It’s a younger man’s game.”

Bien sûr. But reflecting the title of one of Piaf’s most famous popular songs and her last big hit, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” Nardicio doesn’t regret what he’s done. Instead, he’s looking forward to the next phase — and a rose-colored one at that.

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Tori Scott Decks the Halls With Booze and Belting

Countless female performers have attempted to replicate the bawdy stylings of Bette Midler in the past few decades, but few of those women have deigned to dip their toes into the scene in which the Divine Miss M infamously got her start. Not so for the Texas-bred, New York–based singer and comedian Tori Scott, who once did a gig at a male bathhouse — even if it was a far cry from the ritzy Continental Baths of the Seventies where Midler earned the moniker Bathhouse Betty.

“It was nothing like Bette Midler’s days,” Scott says of her appearance at a monthly party held at a Turkish bathhouse on Wall Street. “I’ve seen the videos of Bette Midler at the bathhouse — there’s a really grainy one on YouTube — and she has a band and a stage and a full audience of people sitting and watching her. I, on the other hand, was the only woman, standing on a small stage and singing along to a couple of tracks.” Asked if she witnessed any of the patrons engaging in any dirty deeds while she was there, Scott offers up her first of many hearty laughs. “Of course I walked around before I left,” she admits. “Someone told me that Midler once said she never saw a penis in all of her time performing at the bathhouses, but I have never seen so many penises in my life.”

There will be remarkably fewer male genitals flanking the 35-year-old performer when she takes the stage at Joe’s Pub on December 14 for her upcoming show, Vodka Is the Reason for the Season, but that won’t keep Scott from working a little blue. And while the name of her act might imply some onstage boozing — as did her sharply titled show over the summer, Thirsty! — Scott admits she keeps herself pretty tame. (“Sometimes I’ll pretend I’m drunk onstage,” she says.) But it’s the stories she tells, paired perfectly with a selection of songs ranging from American standards to contemporary pop, that showcase her strength as a performer who occupies the border zone between stand-up comedy and cabaret.

Scott easily blends the crude with the charming (an anecdote about a homeless man masturbating in front of her on the subway begets a mash-up of Judy Garland’s “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” and “The Trolley Song”), the confessional with the self-deprecating (“I like a guy who’s direct and goes after what he wants,” she muses. “No games, no dinner…no teeth”). Her wry observations are more Margaret Cho than Garland — just if, you know, Margaret Cho could sing.

While Scott cites the usual suspects of Ethel Merman and Patti LuPone as influencing her belting-heavy approach, she more exuberantly expresses a love for funny women — particularly Carol Burnett, Janeane Garofalo, and Cho. “I was really into watching stand-up as a teenager,” she says, “and I never understood how people could do that: to get up onstage and tell jokes.” Discovering Cho in college, she learned that a comedian wasn’t limited to formulaic bits but could work more as a storyteller or cultural observer. Pairing the latter sensibility with music, Scott playfully pokes at the absurdities of the human experience, particularly in a routine that plots the life cycle of a lesbian relationship through four songs (specifically, Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window,” Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” and Annie Lennox’s “Why”). Her voice, of course, is a safety net. “If a joke doesn’t land,” she says, “I can always save it with a song.”

After graduating from the Boston Conservatory, Scott, like many young hopefuls who find their way to New York, dreamed of Broadway fame and fortune — a career path that didn’t pan out. She went on numerous auditions, often for the same role (“If I went in for Hairspray one more time, I thought I’d kill myself,” she says), and soon found herself sick of performing, considering that the performances were limited to “singing sixteen bars of showtunes in audition rooms.” A respite from that disillusionment came, naturally, in gay bars — Vlada, to be exact, the now-closed club on 51st Street where a friend of Scott’s worked and offered her a gig. It was there that a co-worker of Scott’s saw her show — she was working as a fundraiser for the Public Theater at the time (and now holds a similar position at MCC Theater) — and implored director Shanta Thake to give Scott a gig at the theater complex’s cabaret space at Joe’s Pub.

[pullquote]‘If a joke doesn’t land,’ she says, ‘I can always save it with a song.’[/pullquote]

Scott experienced a bit of nervous culture shock when she was offered the shot to move to a more established performance venue. “I remember sitting in Joe’s Pub for a show a few weeks before my first one, and I thought, ‘I can’t believe I said yes to this,’ ” she recalls. “I was used to being in the back of a gay bar, where people are loud and drunk and barely listening to me.” But a successful first show paved the way for more appearances at the venue, with next week’s being her twelfth.

Joe’s Pub might be the epicenter of the cabaret scene in Lower Manhattan — a far cry from the more polished spaces uptown and their prim and proper notion of cabaret. The performance style has, until recent years, been associated with standards and showtunes, two genres that Scott doesn’t necessarily avoid. But the blurring lines between performance art and comedy have given rise to genre-bending performers, which allows Scott the freedom to explore the ways in which comic storytelling and singing (or, in Scott’s case, belting) go hand in hand.

And it might be one of the few remaining art forms primarily found in New York City. Scott recounts a trip to a theater festival in her home state of Texas last winter: She was already nervous about how her tales of romantic pratfalls and wacky urban adventures would play in the Lone Star State, and that anxiety heightened when she did interviews to promote her show. “Every interview I did involved someone saying to me, ‘We don’t really have cabaret down here! Explain it to me!’ ” she says. “How do you explain cabaret? It’s such a wide range. I found it was easiest to say it’s comic storytelling through song.”

Like all great storytellers, Scott has a way of making the specific feel universal; seeing a homeless man’s unit on the train isn’t a prerequisite to feeling grossed out by an unwanted suitor, after all. But it’s the music that ties the package together, a metaphor fitting for her upcoming holiday-themed extravaganza that gives the self-described “bad-decision expert” the chance to embrace the seasonal spirit. With a selection of songs made popular by Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, and Madonna, among others, Scott is closing out the year with what she does best: what she describes as her own little mixtape, peppered with relatable stories and mixed with her own favorite tipsy spirit for that extra oomph to make an emotionally volatile time of year go down just a little bit smoother.

Tori Scott: Vodka is the Reason for the Season opens at Joe’s Pub on December 14. For ticket information, click here.

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Lena Hall Opens Up With New Cabaret ‘The Villa Satori: Growing Up Haight Ashbury’

When Lena Hall won a Tony for her role as Yitzhak, the beleaguered backup singer for and husband of Hedwig and the Angry Inch‘s titular songstress, it seemed to introduce many to the real woman underneath the leather jacket, sideburns, and prosthetic penis she wore onstage several nights a week. But for anyone who already knew Hall before her star turn in the Broadway revival of Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell’s offbeat, gender-bending musical, the role offered the perfect fit — here, after all, was a performer who’d moved seamlessly between the worlds of highbrow Broadway productions and gritty, downtown rock ‘n’ roll shows. Even before her stage career began — right after high school, with a part in the national tour of Cats (which eventually brought her to the Broadway production in 2000 at the age of twenty) — Hall was primed to perform for an audience.

The daughter of a choreographer and a ballerina, Celina Carvajal had an unconventional childhood in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, where she was raised in what she describes as a hippie house, surrounded by acid paintings, pot smoke, and incense. Long before she changed her name to Lena Hall and took on the dichotomous identity of a whiskey-gulping rock singer and a Tony-winning Broadway star, she was caught in a world of unabashed creativity — a setting that serves as the basis for her upcoming show at Feinstein’s/54 Below, named after the home in which she grew up. The Villa Satori: Growing Up Haight Ashbury, which will run at the nightclub from November 28 to December 7, is an autobiographical production that sees Hall developing not just as an adolescent through her memories of the past, but also as a performer in the present.

This sort of show is a new one for Hall, who is used to the comforts of playing a character onstage — be it one in a musical or the persona Hall created as the lead singer of her rock band, the Deafening. “I had been performing with my band as Lena Hall,” she says, “and I found that people would remember the name, could spell it.” But she was still going by Celina Carvajal as recently as 2013, and she decided to make the change in the middle of performing with the original cast of Kinky Boots on Broadway. “It was hard for people to see me and see that name,” she says. “The name was so very ethnic. I am ethnic — I’m Spanish-Filipino — but the way I look and the way people perceive me isn’t. I had to look at the whole package.”

And despite the success she’s had onstage following the name change, performing in a splashy Broadway musical was something Hall had become apprehensive about after appearing in the ensembles of shows like Dracula, the Musical and Tarzan. “I liken it to a painting: You are the paint,” she says. “You’re going where that person is telling you where to go. I wanted to be in control. I wanted to be the brush or the painter himself.” She was able to do that with the Deafening, in clubs downtown that allowed her to take control of the stage and her own image, where she’d throw back shots of whiskey and pierce the air with her voice alongside those loud guitars.

But even getting herself into rock ‘n’ roll character took some work. As a teenager, Hall was trained in ballet and played cello. “It was harder to get down and dirty and be gross,” she admits, “to be not perfect, to let it all hang out. It took awhile to stop walking like a ballerina, to let loose, to headbang.”

[pullquote]’It took awhile to stop walking like a ballerina, to let loose, to headbang.'[/pullquote]

Hall is hoping to display the various sides of herself in her show, which has her reaching a new level of intimacy with her audience. The success on Broadway and the Tony win naturally earned her some similar gigs, notably a run at the Café Carlyle, where she realized that cabaret is an entirely different beast from putting on a rock show. “I just wanted to sing,” she says. “I didn’t want to explain myself or tell stories. But people who come to that sort of show want to know more about you as a performer.” She quickly realized how difficult that was for her — to open up. Even talking about opening up makes Hall a little more reserved — the opposite, essentially, of the woman she is onstage. “It’s a little uncomfortable to talk about myself,” she admits, “to talk about my life…”

Maybe that’s the little girl inside of her still talking, as she admits her bohemian lifestyle was not something she was proud of when she was growing up. “I hated it,” she says. “I just wanted to be normal.” As an adult, however, and with hindsight serving its usual purpose, she acknowledges the beauty and power of that unconventional upbringing. “My aunts and uncles were transgender, drag queens, homeless alcoholics…. There were all walks of life that came through the house, who knew me and saw me grow up. I think being exposed to such colorful, beautiful characters throughout my childhood has made me a very compassionate person.”

While her role in Hedwig is inarguably her biggest to date, it also gave her the opportunity to see how a performer can touch individual audience members — and how she could inspire others. She shares an anecdote about a fan who met her at the stage door after a performance, a young girl who admitted that seeing the show had convinced her to seek treatment for mental health issues. “It has more of an effect on me than anyone could ever know,” Hall says. “It’s the sudden feeling of purpose, that I can change someone’s life and make it more positive. But I need to make sure I can do that the right way and not turn into something disgusting. I want there to be a lot of integrity in how I perform and sing. It’s why I want to break down that wall and show people who I am, too.”

For Hall to perform with integrity, it involves being her true self: a multi-hyphenate, multi-genre performer. She’ll be pulling out the songs from her youth, ranging from the blues-rock her parents listened to and the punk songs her older sister played (“Basically, what I was forced to listen to,” she says), plus the music she discovered on her own as a teenager. She’ll also be showing off her skills as a multi-instrumentalist, bringing out her guitar and trying her hand at the piano, which she admits she’s never played publicly before and which incites some pretty awful stage fright. But Hall has never been afraid to push boundaries in character, and she’s ready to do it for herself, too. “This whole show is a process of me opening up,” she says, “and even if I fail, I think it’ll still show a side of me that people haven’t seen.”

Lena Hall’s ‘The Villa Satori: Growing Up Haight Ashbury’ runs at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street, cellar; 646-476-3551) November 28–December 7. For ticket information click here.

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NYC’s Best Cabaret Picks for October: Jane Monheit Does Ella Fitzgerald & More

Monday 10/5
Lennie Watts
Don’t Tell Mama
7 p.m., $20

A powerhouse performer who might have gone national eons ago had he not chosen to devote much of his time to working with eager aspirants. When he’s onstage, he’s not only masterful at socking the blues through the roof and any other genre into which he ventures. He’s also off-the-cuff hilarious. Steven Ray Watkins is at the piano, as always when Watts is around, and another force to be reckoned with. High Watt-age, indeed. Watts will spend most of October at Don’t Tell Mama, with a Monday night residency taking him through October 19.

Monday 10/12
Michael Garin
The Metropolitan Room
9:30 p.m., $22.50 – $115

If you want to see a master class on how to work a room, this is the spot to do it  Garin is like a male Texas Guinan, if you happen to remember who that Twenties speakeasy gal was. He plays piano and sings some songs he wrote and some songs he didn’t, and it’s all in an endlessly infectious spirit. Should you come away unenthused, it’s your fault, not his. No stranger to the bigger rooms of Broadway and the intimate confines of downtown’s cabarets, Garin is a joy to watch on any stage.

Tuesday 10/13 – Saturday 10/17
Jane Monheit
Birdland
8:30 p.m. and 11 p.m., $40

Monheit — a Grammy-nominated, Concord Records-signed vocal powerhouse — has gone on record as admiring Ella Fitzgerald since she was a tot. It might be that without her celebrated predecessor she wouldn’t be singing at all. She certainly wouldn’t be singing with the purity and adventurous jazz-inflected style she’s skillfully honed. The Birdland fixture will pluck tunes from the many best-selling, now-classic songbooks Fitzgerald put together in the Fifties and Sixties.

Wednesday 10/28 – Saturday 10/31
Barb Jungr and John McDaniel
54 Below
$35-$75, 7 p.m.

The astonishing set is called “Come Together: The Music of The Beatles.” Throughout it the twosome find a different depth in the repertoire that even songwriters Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison didn’t reach. She’s in front, he’s at the piano. In tandem they’re turning “Eleanor Rigby” into an art song and bringing all sorts of new colors to a couple dozen others favorites. The phrase “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” takes on new meaning here.

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Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Cafe Carlyle Gig Is One of September’s Can’t-Miss NYC Cabaret Picks

For song-and-dance fans looking to get a bit of Broadway flavor in an intimate setting, September has plenty of solid cabaret picks from industry vets and strong voices. Here are our picks for the best cabaret performances to look forward to this month.

Tuesday, 9/15–Saturday, 9/26
Brian Stokes Mitchell
Café Carlyle
Tuesday–Friday at 8:45 p.m.; Saturday at 8:45 p.m. and 10:45 p.m., $65–$185

What’s especially savvy about this Broadway leading man is that he doesn’t push the Broadway-leading-man thing. Instead, he just plays the likable Joe who happens to have a great voice, great taste, and great looks. He chats amiably between freshening up the standards. He may or may not reprise anything he’s sung in “Ragtime” or “Kiss Me, Kate.” He may not warble anything either from his next Great White Way tuner, “Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” That’s the mouthful in which he’ll reunite with “Ragtime” co-star Audra McDonald.

Wednesday, 9/16–Saturday, 9/19
Will Swenson
54 Below
7:00 p.m., $40–$85

Here’s another leading man whose enormous talent can barely be measured. He comes directly from playing James Tyrone in the Williamstown Theatre Festival revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, and, boy-o, did he prove his non-singing chops in the too-short run. Hardly incidentally, he shared that sizzling stage with his wife, the above-mentioned Audra McDonald, who’ll be the guest at his opening performance. Other guests show up on the succeeding nights, so look for him to conquer this new frontier.

Thursday, 9/24
Anthony de Mare
Birdland
6:00 p.m., $25

Looking for something just about completely different? Here it is. It’s not totally completely different, because it’s yet another set devoted to that old fave Stephen Sondheim. The completely different aspect is that for once it’s not the man’s lyrics getting the close scrutiny. It’s his melodies. Concert pianist de Mare asked a goodly number of contemporary composers to “re-imagine” a Sondheim tune. He’ll play the results submitted by Steve Reich, Wynton Marsalis, Duncan Sheik, Nico Muhly, William Bolcom, and other considerable re-imaginers.

Sunday, 9/27
Ann Hampton Callaway
Birdland
6:00 p.m., $30

The one-off evening has been tagged This Is Cabaret. Apparently, the extremely good cabaret and jazz thrush thinks the genre needs some explanation. She may be right, considering the current marginalized status of the great intimate-room entertainment category. She’ll sing items of the wide sort that can be heard on an average cabaret night. The extra-special guest is Steve Tyrell, who usually graces the Café Carlyle stage and will again this December. How smart she is to include the once and still shrewd music a&r fellow.