Kristine Angst:
Inside The Comic Mind Of Kristine Zbornik

(Now exploding at The Metropolitan Room)

by Rob Lester

Kristine Zbornik
Walking into The Metropolitan Room for the very packed opening night performance of Kristine Zbornik's show, it's clear that the two well-dressed guys who have prime ringside seats won't be leaving a tip. They are life-size inflatable dolls, so you know something's up. It is: a daring and devilish cabaret act, and the blow-up dolls represent Kristine's father and stepfather, whom she refers to and addresses during the night. "They're both dead," she informs the crowd flatly, and then admits she still hears their voices in her head. When her autobiographical comments turn to her sexuality, she covers the dolls' heads with sheets, saying, "They don't need to hear this." The audience laughs in anticipation and a sense that anything can happen, but that atmosphere is clear from the opening number when Kristine enters earnestly, belting a show tune and holding a baton, as musical director/pianist Bobby Peaco utters the dismissive comments of someone running an audition where she might be singing this ("She was too tall ... Thank you"). The bit brings the first of many sets of extended applause and cheers - just the start of what is a wild ride.

Interviewed the week before opening, she says of the show, "The theme or what ties it all together is my heartbeat, my desire to overcome and exorcise the critical voices in my head," referring to the props of "my dead fathers - one biological, one step - who sit at the front table. So, you might be asking yourself right about now, where is the funny part? The whole thing is funny, it's one big cosmic joke, this struggle with authority, machines and fathers. To me, it's all the same thing. It's a musical comedy, what more can I say?" Certainly there are well-known musical comedy selections for theater fans, but, as she remarks, they are "twisted into the pretzel of my interpretation."

Kristine began to think of doing a new act after returning to New York following months in Las Vegas in Mamma Mia!. The lady, notably a longtime veteran of editions of Forbidden Broadway, makes it clear that nothing is forbidden in this show. Familiar is her tough in-your-face but-hilarious stance, crystallized as far back as 1993 in her recorded rendition of "Surabaya Santa" on the Cabaret Noel benefit CD for Broadway Cares (her bio, in a typically tongue-in-cheek manner says she's been in "5,000 benefits" - two include the staged concerts of Chess and Funny Girl.) Other stage work includes last year's Fringe Festival hit, The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun, in which she played a rather atypical Mother Superior, and Splendora seven years ago, but just one block away at the Chelsea Playhouse. And she's no stranger to cabaret.

Confrontational one moment and sensitive the next, Kristine is a loose cannon expertly loaded. Her intent is to make the show "extremely funny and dark, off the cuff and scripted." (On opening night, she improvised with a dirty look when a prop didn't cooperate, and interrupted a story to interact with a customer and waiter when she noticed the patron trying to get the server's attention: she simply took the drink order herself. "Gin and tonic," she called on-mic, heaving a sigh. "This is what I do," she lamented to the crowd with a weary tone, promising she'd comment later on her "survival job" which is working as the club's hostess, greeting, meeting and seating customers.) Earlier, when I asked what kind of work she is most eager to do and has enjoyed most, she responded, "The kind where I get paid and can make a living. I enjoy my own work the most, like this show at the Metropolitan Room and a piano bar, where I can take structured material that I've created and intertwine it with the audience and situation at hand and play off everything that happens while I'm up there performing."

Marilyn Maye's recent Metropolitan Room act was one Kristine especially admired: "Her show should be seen by everyone, especially those who want to perform. She is timeless, ageless and loves life. She's got heart, soul, a wicked sense of humor and can still sing her pants off." She admires how the veteran singer "bridges everything that's good about the past into today without sappy nostalgia." With her own brand of political incorrectness and daring, Kristine has a similar goal.

Kristine's day job (well, night job) recently became history because she's just been cast at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in High Button Shoes, the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn charmer hitting its 60th anniversary. "I'm 'featured ensemble,' which means I'm basically in the chorus but I'll be doing a couple of featured things in two numbers and they are going to create a character with myself and another woman to back up the leading female role [originally played by Nanette Fabray] in the show. That's all I really know about it, except I'm very happy to be doing it. I love Goodspeed. I did Man of La Mancha there in 2000. Gerry Gutierrez directed it." The nostalgic musical is going into rehearsal soon and running this summer. She adds, "I'm up for it in every way."

And she's definitely "up" for this current venture. Last year's version of this act won her a Bistro Award and is a nominee for another MAC Award now, too. Of course, her years in Forbidden Broadway paved the way to some awareness of a love/hate relationship with larger-than-life personalities. "Sometimes if I really can't stand the person I'm doing that's when the impression is best. Or if I've met the person and found them to be unpleasant, then I can really go to town - Elaine Stritch being one of those people. I love her, but we did a benefit together and she was extremely nasty to me and after that, it was easy for me to impersonate her because I saw her cruelty, insecurity and annoyance with the world first hand and I recognized it in myself. Imitating her voice though, which is nothing like mine, nearly wiped me out and eventually caused me to have to stop doing the show. She and Liza did me in."

She comments that "What people call cabaret nowadays is largely performers doing 12 to 17 songs in a row with a band or piano with no particular point of view. It's really small little concerts, which there's nothing wrong with per se, but it's not what I think of as cabaret. There is very little cabaret being performed in most cabaret clubs in the city. I think you have to work with what you've got. You've got a world, society and a profession that doesn't for the most part, see the value of live small intimate theatrical experiences that aren't ultimately leading up to someone's HBO special. So, I look at these cabaret rooms as a place where I can cheaply self-produce my own little works with great lights and sound."

Her lights and sound may be state of the art, but Kristine is neither blind nor shy about confronting the state of the art and business of cabaret today. "Cherry-picking the audience that you hope will turn up and fill the room, that is what I think cabaret is today. It's revenue-driven. I'm trying, along with other performers, to create something with varying degrees of content without going totally broke and everything else surrounding that is trying to make a living off it. I'm sorry if that sounds negative, but I've worked both sides of the cabaret business for over 15 years and that's what I see."

Be that as it may, what audiences are seeing on Monday nights is a no-holds-barred rant from a woman is fearless but by no means cheerless. "I ate the whole cake ... and it was good!" she tells one of her fathers in a flashback moment. In her crowd-pleasing, do-what-she-wants act today, she's still having her cake and eating it, too.

The Metropolitan Room is at 34 West 22nd Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) in Manhattan. Kristine Zbornik, with Bobby Peaco at the piano, appears every Monday through May 21 (April 30 and May 7 are at 9:30 p.m., all others at 7 p.m.) There is a $20 minimum, plus a 2-drink minimum. Reservations by phone: 212-206-0440. For more information, visit The Metropolitan Room.

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