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Dollypalooza’s Blonde Ambition: ‘Her Impact Goes Definitely Beyond Her Boobs’

You could say that Dolly Parton’s having a moment, thanks to the flurry of buzz around her upcoming “family-oriented, faith-based” made-for-TV movie Coat of Many Colors, but honestly, when isn’t she having a moment? The Smoky Mountain Songbird’s cultural relevance has only increased over her six-decade-long career, now known just as much for her myriad classic country and bluegrass albums (“Jolene” will get you every time) as for her uncontested status as pop culture’s glitteriest, sassiest backwoods grand dame. She proved her mettle as a strong, take-no-shit musician and businesswoman way back in 1968, when “Just Because I’m a Woman” stormed the charts and brought its daring condemnation of sexual double standards — as she said, “My mistakes are no worse than yours, just because I’m a woman” — along for the ride, and she hasn’t slowed down for a minute.

Her brassy, self-deprecating personality and penchant for dropping endlessly quotable kernels of wisdom (“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap” is basically Scripture) is enough to make an open-minded soul love her, even before you throw in her extensive charity work and support of the LGBT community (and her own masses of LBGT fans). “I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are, and to love who they love. I don’t think we should be judgmental. Lord, I’ve got enough problems of my own to pass judgment on somebody else,” she told Billboard last year, and she’s practiced what she preaches, even famously entering a drag competition as herself — and gracefully accepting the second-place trophy. She spit a little more truth on the subject later, saying, “I am not gay, but if I were I would be the first one running out of the closet.”

A woman like Dolly — who once proudly proclaimed, “I may look fake but I’m real where it counts” — is a drag queen’s wet dream. All big hair, big boobs, sequins, and flamboyant femininity, she’s long been a beloved muse for Dollypalooza: An Epic Fan Tribute to Dolly Parton organizer Bevin Branlandingham. The event — which takes place September 4 at Littlefield in Brooklyn — promises a night bursting with drag, burlesque, performance art, music, and (duh) glitter, and was originally inspired by Knoxville’s Night of 1,000 Dollys.

Celebrating Dolly at Dollypalooza 2014
Celebrating Dolly at Dollypalooza 2014

Branlandingham told the Voice, “I’ve never…known a world without Dolly Parton. She was an iconic celebrity when I was a child in the Eighties, but I wasn’t properly introduced to her until I became a drag king performer in 2002, and my first big act was a duet to Dolly and Billy Ray Cyrus’s ‘Romeo.’ I keep doing the show because of my strong personal connection to Dolly. She is an idol of mine and I look up to her not just for her flashy femininity, but also her business acumen and drive to fulfill her dreams.

“Culturally, I think she shows that you don’t have to be boxed in by other people’s ideas about you,” Branlandingham continued. “She started [in] show business 50 years ago when women were still under very strict ideas of what their ‘roles’ were. She shattered those ideas and kept reinventing herself with the times, proved herself to be a powerful businesswoman — her theme park turned 30 this year — and is still working full time at 69. Her impact goes definitely beyond her boobs.”

The performers and artists at Dollypalooza will be voguing for a cause, too. Proceeds from a silent auction with prizes like Dolly throw pillows, Dolly sneakers, and an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Parton’s homespun mecca, Dollywood, will benefit Dolly’s Imagination Library, the singer’s childhood-literacy charity. As Branlandingham explains, “I had a chaotic childhood and survived because of my love of reading, and the Imagination Library gives that! They provide books to kids under five; once per month from birth on the child gets a hardcover age-appropriate book addressed to them in the mail. We fundraised $1,400 through a raffle last year and are hoping to bring in $10,000 through a silent auction this year.”

It’s a beautiful cause that adds a little extra sparkle to an event that will surely be swimming in it. We’re sure Dolly would approve.

Dollypalooza descends upon Littlefield September 4. For ticket information and more, click here.

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Mx. Justin Vivian Bond Returns to Joe’s Pub With ‘Tranniversary’ Triumph

Twenty-five years ago, a then-unknown cabaret performer Justin Vivian Bond took the stage at Athens by Night, a Greek restaurant in San Francisco. It was an unlikely performance space — long, narrow, and lined with fake stones and plastic geraniums. In the back, the elderly owner sat chain-smoking cigarettes and descanting on the misery of existence.

The show was called Dixie McCall’s Patterns for Living, and it heralded the arrival of a multi-hyphenate alt-cabaret superstar who would become cult-legendary first in San Francisco and then in New York. Dixie McCall’s laid down the groundwork for Bond’s career, first in the persona of aging, boozy lounge singer Kiki DuRane and then simply as Justin Vivian Bond.

Now, v — Bond’s preferred pronoun — is celebrating that quarter-century of performance with a yearlong retrospective at Joe’s Pub, v’s stage of choice for fifteen years and counting. The season kicks off with Dixie McCall’s, its first performance since 1990, and will be followed throughout the year by more shows from Bond’s entire career. It’s a legacy that would do Kiki herself proud.

“I’ll take any chance I can to date myself and make myself look older,” Bond says jovially over Manhattans at the Library at the Public, the cocktail lounge above Joe’s. This place is a downtown institution — and so is Bond. (Bond played a heightened version of this beloved downtown impresario in 2006’s Shortbus, written and directed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s John Cameron Mitchell.)

V first touched down in New York in 1994, joined by pianist and longtime collaborator Kenny Mellman. Their soon-to-be-legendary act, Kiki and Herb, saw the pair embodying the personas of an impossibly aged showgirl and her put-upon accompanist. Over the years, they performed reinterpretations of such wildly divergent acts as Prince, Kate Bush, and Eminem, punctuated by Kiki’s withering commentary on the world at large — not unlike that of the Greek restaurant owner back in San Francisco.

“I’ve fetishized older women since I was in my twenties. But now I’m in my fifties and I still fetishize older women,” Bond says, laughing. V based the geriatric, raging Kiki on a friend’s mother. “When I met her, she was standing at the top of the stairs in this turban and a sweatshirt. And she starts dancing: ‘That’s a soft shoe. I started out as a dancer in Baltimore in the Fifties, and I still got it.’ She was one of those people who can tell every bit of bullshit about you, every fake thing.”

Kiki did double duty, both as a character and as a kind of shield for Bond. V had been identifying as transgender for most of v’s life, but until recently, that was difficult to communicate to the world at large. Bond recalls a review of Dixie McCall’s in the San Francisco Chronicle that described v as “a six-foot man in a dress.”

“It made me feel really vulnerable, and that eventually led me to create the character of Kiki. I then had a persona and a character to hide behind, and I sort of hid behind that character for about fifteen years. I didn’t care what people said about Kiki. She’s supposed to be horrible.”

By the time Kiki and Herb retired from the spotlight in 2008, Bond discovered that the world had become more open and accepting toward trans people. “What had made me feel so isolated back then had changed, so now I can comfortably, for the most part, be myself in my performances, which was very difficult for me back then,” v explains.

Bond’s use of the gender-nonconforming pronouns v and the honorific Mx. (pronounced “Mix”) have made v a prominent part of a global conversation surrounding transgender language. Recently, Mx. was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. A grassroots movement in Britain led to its inclusion as an option on many government forms in the U.K. “They did invent the language, after all,” Bond quips. “Hopefully, it’ll spread over here.”

Bond believes that increasing visibility — from Caitlyn Jenner to Transparent — is helping the trans population gain larger acceptance, but v acknowledges that we still have a long way to go.

“Most of the conversations are talking about people who are the old trope of ‘I have the soul of a woman in the body of a man.’ I don’t think souls are gendered. Some of us really aren’t trapped in the wrong body; we’re just not men or women,” Bond says.

This “tranniversary” season at Joe’s spans shows from throughout v’s career. Dixie McCall’s, the one that started it all, pays tribute to midcentury glamour icon Julie London, who starred as the titular Dixie on Seventies medical drama Emergency! Thomas Bartlett will back v up on the piano, filling a seat originally occupied by Mellman in the original production at Athens by Night. “It was kind of the blueprint for all the shows that came after it,” Bond says.

Justin Vivian Bond and the Freudian Slippers: The Lost Show, a re-creation of a cabaret night Bond was slated for September 11, 2001, that, for obvious and awful reasons, was never performed, will follow it in November. December sees v busting out Christmas tunes in Angels We Have Heard When High, followed in 2016 by the Valentine’s-themed Love Is Crazy and a revival of the more recent Mx America.

Though Bond is a huge supporter of up-and-comers, v doesn’t recommend New York as a launch pad for those breaking into the biz. “You’ve got to [find your voice] somewhere else and then come here. I was 31 when I moved to New York. I lived in San Francisco for six years, in a subversive counterculture where I could take my chances and fuck up. I was a late bloomer. But that’s good, because I still look fucking awesome,” v says with a laugh.

Bond leans back in the booth, sipping the last of v’s Manhattan with easy grace. “Some people put a lot of pressure on themselves: ‘I have to do such and such by the time I’m 30!’ I’m not like that. Everything happened to me about ten years after I hoped it would. But it’s all happened.”

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A ‘Grease’ Star, a ‘Chorus Line’ Vet, and More Make Up August’s Must-See NYC Cabaret Acts

Here’s a look at the best cabaret performances coming up in New York for the month of August.

Monday, 8/3
Laura Osnes
Birdland
7:00 p.m., $40

Remember when she won the “You’re the One That I Want” television contest to play Sandy in the last Grease revival? Turns out she’s the one many want, not least the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. They want her to play as many classic R&H roles as possible, unless they have Kelli O’Hara in them. Here she shows off the broad range of her musical stage prowess. She’s part of the steadfast Birdland on Broadway series.

Thursday, 8/6; Sunday, 8/9
Donna McKechnie
54 Below
7:00 p.m., $50–$95

Don’t look now, but it’s been 40 years since she first danced and sang about the music, the mirror, and the chance to dance for us in A Chorus Line — and now McKechnie is back to recall the era. In particular, she’s reminiscing about her first aspiring years in NYC and how by sheer coincidence she lived down the street from the room where she’s now appearing. Yes, she may be looking back, but because she’s always been right in the moment, she’s as vitally immediate now as she was then.

Friday, 8/14
Ethan Lipton

Joe’s Pub
7:00 p.m., $20

This relaxed fellow is one of those entertainers who make everything old seem new again. He writes his own songs, and the minute you hear them you think you’ve known them all your short or long life. He’s backed by Eben Levy on guitar, Vito Dieterle on saxophone, and Ian Riggs on bass. By the time they’ve finished, the word “mellow” has been nicely redefined.

Tuesday, 8/18–Friday, 8/21
KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar

Laurie Beechman Theatre
7:00 p.m., $30

The first celebration these two cabaret crown jewels did of the Stephen Sondheim catalog was so successful that they’ve figured: Why not add to it? Hence “Another Hundred People: KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar Sing Sondheim, Act Two.” They don’t include 100 songs, but get close to it by way of several astute medleys. Sometimes they sing together, sometimes separately, but always with Jon Weber at the piano and under Sondra Lee’s smart staging.

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Sanda Weigl Transforms Park Slope’s Barbes Into a Mid-Century Gypsy Cabaret

We are in a dingy backroom of a bar with a small stage bearing red curtains and a lit-up sign, “Hotel D’Orsay,” up top. Singing tonight is Romanian Sanda Weigl, who regales the small crowd sitting in front of her with Yiddish songs and the Romanian folk and gypsy music she grew up with. Violinist LJOVA, or Lev Zhurbin, accompanies her, his solos heartfelt and playful, depending on the song. It feels like a scene from a German cabaret, maybe one plucked from the Twenties, or the same scene that gave us Sally Bowles.

On this rainy Saturday at Park Slope bar Barbès, patrons young and old sit in rows or at tables on the side, sipping beer and listening to Weigl’s voice and LJOVA’s violin. It is the second show of Weigl’s weekly residency at Barbès, which runs through March 28. She’s accompanied by a band or one musician or, in shows to come, by her daughters, too. (She’ll also be performing with a band there March 19.) Her repertoire spans German jazz and cabaret, and Jewish folklore from her native Bucharest. Weigl’s lullaby voice — sweet, accepting, homey — takes us there, to wherever and whenever these songs were first composed, somewhere pure and far away.

Weigl herself, tiny, warm and sporting short gray hair, was born in post–World War II, Communist Romania, the daughter of a German professor and Romanian publisher. As a kid, she fell in love with the Romanian folk songs she heard playing on the radio and with the gypsy music playing just outside. The family lived next door to a police station in Bucharest, gypsies taken in often for having stolen things or started fights. Their gypsy family and friends would follow as they got arrested, camping just outside the station, starting fires, playing music and dancing deep into the night.

“For us children, it was heaven,” Weigl says, over coffee before the show, about those makeshift gypsy concerts. “We loved it.” She clasped on to Romanian folk music and these gypsy songs immediately.

“My mother told me I started singing these songs when I was two years old,” she says. Eventually, political persecution led her family to move to East Germany in 1964, and Weigl had her first taste of rock ‘n’ roll with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. She’d start her own rock band at sixteen, called Team Four, the group gaining notoriety with a hit song and a performance on television. It wouldn’t last. Weigl, protesting government policy by handing flyers out in East Berlin, would be arrested, sent to jail for several months, and barred from singing in public again.

No matter. After serving her sentence she would find her way back to music, singing with a jazz band in little culture halls for people to dance to. Jazz was actually frowned upon by the government, but the band would sneak in songs between the German pop hits they’d perform. In 1977, having made the list of 30 or 40 people East Germany could do without, she was given clearance to leave, and so she moved to West Berlin, where she fell into theater, directing some and acting some. She met actor/writer and eventual husband Klaus Pohl, and started a family of her own.

It was in the late Eighties in Hamburg, having taken a hiatus from her singing, that a famous actress friend heard Weigl sing and asked her what she’d been doing in the theater all this time. She should have been in music. And so Weigl got a band together and started singing yet again, the family’s move to NYC in 1992 yet another curt ending to a budding singing career. In 1998, after hearing a local cellist play, Weigl started singing in New York nonstop, borrowing, always, from her Romanian folk and gypsy background, and from German cabaret and jazz, and from her Yiddish culture, and Nina Simone and Tom Waits (and other Westerners), whom she’d picked up and fallen in love with along the way. She has since played all over the city, in Europe, Mexico, and Israel, with various incarnations of a backing band (for a while with a band of Japanese musicians, for example).

Saturday’s set with LJOVA included Yiddish songs composed by the Israeli singer/songwriter Chava Alberstein and tunes using lyrics by the twelfth-century German poet Walther von der Vogelweide that musician Anthony Coleman wrote specifically for Weigl. The Romanian gypsy songs she’s known for had people clapping upon their introduction as well. They’re songs about wine and wells and dreaming, and audience members were encouraged to sing along if, by chance, we knew the lyrics.

“I think everything we rehearsed didn’t go the way we rehearsed,” says LJOVA, laughing about the loose, raw, and improvised set. Remembering the first time he heard Weigl sing and echoing the sentiment of audience members now, he says, “I was completely taken to a different world and taken to a different country.”

Says showgoer Liza Ivanova, considerably younger than Weigl but having connected with the latter’s passion for her music, “The atmosphere of the place itself and her voice. It’s like home.”

Sanda Weigl performs every Saturday through March 28 at Barbès.

See also:
Terry Waldo Brings Triumphant Ragtime to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola
Exclusive Premiere: Kristin Andreassen Gives Folk a Brooklyn Spin with ‘Lookout’
At Just 25, Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton Channels the Spirit of a Bygone Era

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The Best Cabaret Shows to See in NYC This February

Every month, we round up the most scintillating, striking, and splendid cabarets taking place in the city — those that feature Broadway stars and those that spotlight talent on the rise. While the snow and icy chill that’s descended upon New York over the course of these first two months of 2015 is enough to keep you locked in your apartment with Netflix and a space heater till spring, these acts are more than worth the trip out into the blustery night.

Wednesday, February 11

Annaleigh Ashford
54 Below, 9:30 p.m., $25

Ashford lit fires up and down Broadway last year in Kinky Boots and this year in the stupendous You Can’t Take It With You. Wherever this incendiary performer is, she steals scene after scene (even from other adept scene-stealers). She returns with a revised version of Lost in the Stars, her concert that sold out the venue not that long ago. Music director Will Van Dyke has returned as well, so prepare to be unprepared for what unfolds between the two of them.

Wednesday, February 18

Mark Nadler
54 Below, 7 p.m., $35–$65

Seemingly compelled to put on a new show at least once a year, Nadler’s looking back over a 43-year career for his most recent run at 54 Below. Nadler started playing piano and singing at the Long Straw Saloon in Cedar Falls, Iowa, at the ripe old age of ten. He calls the turn Addicted to the Spotlight, a title apparently appropriated from a recent review. This is a guy who likes going as far over the top as he can, and more often than not he pulls ringsiders right along with him.

Monday, February 23

Broadway by the Year
Town Hall, 8 p.m., $45

Scott Siegel, who put the “imp” in impresario, begins his 15 series with the revised formula he introduced last year. Instead of scrutinizing one Broadway season, he divides his four annual shows into glimpses of the Great White Way down the years. This look turns a spotlight on Broadway’s best tunes from 1916 through 1940. Tonya Pinkins, Steve Ross, Emily Skinner, Stephen Bogardus, Nancy Anderson, Karen Ziemba, William Michals, and more will lend their voices to this trip back in time.