By Jeff Walsh
For more than 40 years, Kiki and Herb have been consummate entertainers. But you may want to check them out soon, judging from their recent "Alive From Broadway" show at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco (playing through July 29), a testament that not everything improves with age.
Their set-list shows that if you polish something, it can become beautiful and sparkling; but if you polish it too much over 40 years, it can become dull and the seams begin to show.
"Make Yourself Comfortable" is a song my grandmother probably sang along to in the late 1950s, the original recording still young and alive. In concert, though, the magic is all but gone; Kiki preferring to drink her way through one more gig, while Herb lets his seeming contempt for her frustrate him to the point where all the lessons he learned in anger management class drain out of him, his back-up vocals more invective than harmony.
But with a duo like this (Kiki as warbling chanteuse, Herb as sole accompaniment on piano), the fact that they are still performing at their age is proof of both the magic and desperation of show business. Even Kiki knows they are fortunate to still draw an appreciative crowd.
"Between AIDS and Alzheimer's, we haven't got a fan left over 40," Kiki noted between songs.
You may have figured out that Kiki & Herb aren't what they seem. Performing in age-inducing makeup, Kiki (Justin Bond) and Herb (Kenny Mellman) wear their fictional back-story well. The duo met and began performing in San Francisco more than 20 years ago, although they are now based out of New York City. This ACT run is the first standing show they've done in San Francisco in a long while, normally giving us one-night-only tastes in local rock clubs.
Throughout the course of the night, they put their dragtastic Kiki & Herb spin on a lot of songs you wouldn't expect from them. "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley opens the set. Radhiohead's "Creep" finds its way into the middle of "Make Yourself Comfortable." Public Enemy's "Don't Believe The Hype," and Bright Eyes' "First Day Of My Life" also make full-on appearances.
The duo is at its best when it comes to combining songs that seem to have no connective tissue. Scissor Sisters' "Take Your Mama Out" is performed beautifully, but also leads off to The Animals' "House of The Rising Sun," and "The Weight" by The Band, before closing on "With a Little Help From My Friends," by The Beatles. Later in the set, Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" leads into Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," wrapping into the Byrds' "Turn Turn Turn."
It's an odd mixture of theater and music, though. Were they just actors that merely parodied an old duo playing way past their prime, or if they just did out-of-left-field covers as Kiki & Herb, it wouldn't work. Somehow, when the two things are combined, it finds a lovely balance that transfixes crowds.
When the duo reference a recent sold-out show at Carnegie Hall while onstage, it could be seen as fictional bluster, except it's true. They also recently lost a two-nominee Tony Award race as "Best Special Theatrical Event" to a ventriloquist show, which Kiki says shows that "America still has a penchant for voting for dummies."
Having only seen the duo before in rock venues for one-off shows, the only thing missing seemed to be a heightened sense of danger and chaos. Gone are the transcendent moments of Kiki standing on cabaret tables, always looking like she's about to fall face first into the crowd, and inspired pieces including spoken word such as "The Revolution Will Be Televised." But, if that is the sacrifice that needs to be made for them to do numerous shows a week and stay in town for a while, then so be it.
The duo never break character the entire night and, despite her boozing, long tangential stories, and inappropriate comments, when Kiki tells the crowd, "If I could love, I'd love you all," part of you really wishes that she could.
OK, I hear the complaints already. Dude, I don't live in San Francisco, so thanks for the heads up on everything I'm missing. But wait! They're also coming to Australia and Washington D.C. And they perform a lot in New York City. They also have CDs, including a 2-CD set of their Carnegie Hall show, and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" a somewhat Christmas-themed album that features a medley called "People Die," that begins with "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer." DVDs coming soon.
Check out their MySpace page for details.
San Francisco information and tickets available here.