Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Family Jewels - The Making of Veronica Klaus
SteinBeck Productions, one of our newer theatre production companies, is presenting the world premiere of Family Jewels - The Making of Veronica Klaus starring San Francisco icon Veronica Klaus. This intimate show of both story and song is playing at the small Exit Theatre Thursdays through Saturdays until March 12.
Veronica Klaus is an award-winning chanteuse who has graced clubs, cabarets and plays for many years in the Bay Area. Barbara and Scott Siegel in a 2003 Theatermania.com column listed her a list of the top three cabaret artists along with Mandy Patinkin and Kristin Chenoweth. About a year ago, Jeffrey Hartgraves, noted director and actor, got together with Veronica to work on a new one person show. The chanteuse wanted to tell her life story with both anecdotes and songs - about the heartbreak of growing up in a small Illinois town as a boy with the soul of a woman. She wanted the audience to know the challenges that face young persons who have gender identity issues.
Family Jewels is still a rough-cut diamond and could use some paring in the first act. The artist tends to go from story to story in no particular order, jumping around in a way that is a little confusing and a might too long. This act needs more structure rather than the little bits and pieces of her early life in the town of Gillespie, Illinois.
Veronica Klaus comes out on a very cluttered stage in a red velvet grown, looking a little like Kathleen Turner. She breaks into the Peggy Lee song "Fever" with some very clever lyrics about Liberace and Gertrude Stein. Veronica does not want to tell her former name since all of that was an illusion. She obtained the name Veronica Klaus from the Fassbenger film of the same name.
Ms. Klaus relates anecdotes about her birth mother leaving the family and how the father had to raise the children. The father remarried and her stepmother was Jackie (she says the word like Joan Crawford did in the horror film Strait-Jacket). Veronica and her father drift apart, and finally the father denies his child after her operation to become a woman. There are some clever stories of being a member of a "God Squad" while a teenager, going to various church functions and old age homes entertaining with puppets, and of her liberal and wild friend Hazel who was a member of a Pentecostal Church.
The chanteuse moved to San Francisco before an operation to remove the male organs and put in a vagina. She talks of working in a clothing store on Height Street where she became the center attraction. Through this recounting of her life, she interjects songs that are relatively obscure. Ms. Klaus has a sultry voice, great phrasing and a respect for each song she sings. Her voice is deep and has a complex sound. Many of the songs show the pain of being different and the loneliness of her life. She is an exceptionally talented blues artist. One of the songs she sings is the rare "Sloe Gin" that was recorded 15 years ago by Tim Curry. It is beautifully rendered. She also sings her own composition, the soul-searching "Black Diamond Days," referring to her childhood in the Midwest.
Family Jewels' second act is better put together. It is tight and compact and the most interesting. Veronica describes in great detail the sex change operation, from pre-operative to post-operative details. She delivers this in a droll manner that makes the segment the high point of the show. Her report on an airplane trip to our fair city after the operation is hilarious. There are more stories of not being accepted by her family and of attending high school reunions. She ends the show with a marvelous version of Janis Ian's "Stars" that shows off her remarkable deep voice.
Family Jewels runs at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco through March 12. Performances are Thursday through Saturday only. To purchase tickets call 415-820-1565 or visit www.steinbeckpresents.org.
The company will present the West Coast premiere of Sharyn Shipley's StarCrossed at the Phoenix Theatre on May 12, a play about the tragic vendetta between the Montagues and Capulets before Romeo and Juliet.