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Kiki & Herb SLEIGH

Theatre Review by James Wilson - December 2, 2021

Kenny Mellman and Justin Vivian Bond
Photo by Richard Termine
A giant, glittery sleigh (designed by Steven Hammel) hangs precariously over the stage in Kiki and Herb's new Christmas show at BAM's Harvey Theater. The silver runners appear as sharpened blades, and the contraption looks more like a guillotine than a festive, holiday ornament. The show, simply called SLEIGH, might just as well have been titled SLAY. Over the two-hour running-time, heads will roll, but there is no better way to ring in the holidays than with Kiki and Herb's take-no-prisoners, hilarious, and at times deeply moving cabaret/ theatre performance.

Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman have performed as Kiki and Herb since the early 1990s, and in New York City alone they have appeared both on- and Off-Broadway, at Carnegie Hall, and Joe's Pub. After a rather lengthy hiatus and solo pursuits, the duo are back together, and their Brooklyn reunion is exactly what we need in these fractured and uncertain times.

Structurally and stylistically, SLEIGH is similar to their previous productions. Pianist and backup singer Herb (Mellman) accompanies Kiki (Bond) as they present ingenious song pairings and mixings, such as a frenetic Christmas medley that combines "Sleigh Bells," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," Radiohead's "Creep," and concludes with a deeply ironic "Jesus Loves Me (This I Know)" There are also outrageous interpretations of familiar songs, and one is not likely to hear "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in the same way after experiencing Kiki's brutally angry and confrontational version.

Yet, there are also moments of real emotional heft, and Bond's cover of Brandi Carlile's "The Joke" is sensational. Defiant and steely in Brandon Stirling Baker's pastel-hued lighting, Kiki offers a powerful anthem for those who have been "dressed down" and had "dirt kicked in their faces." And while performing a lovely and plaintive "Under the Milky Way" by The Church, Bond summons the vulnerability and emotional rawness of Billie Holiday.

SLEIGH also builds on Kiki and Herb's backstories, family dramas, and a (literal) sacred-cow narrative that audiences have come to expect in the between-song monologues. Downing glass after glass of Canadian Club, Kiki shares childhood memories of the "Institutional" where she, who had been removed from her mother's home (by her mother!), and Herb, a foundling, first met in 1934. She also recounts an uproarious story from the 1950s about their friendship with Sylvia Plath, who was, according to Kiki, something of a "drama queen." Kiki wasn't surprised to hear about the poet's eventual suicide, because, come to find out, Plath made a "party game" of putting her head in an oven.

As audiences might also expect, Kiki provides biting and exceedingly dark social commentary. Referring to current circumstances (and claiming a new definition of the term "superspreader" for herself), she reminds us that this isn't her "first time at the pandemic rodeo." Looking to the audience with mild disdain, she says, "The only people we liked died of AIDS."

Mellman also has opportunities to show off his comic gifts and musical expertise. When Kiki changes from a Christmassy frock to a sequined dress that is draped in feather boas (Marc Happel designed the wonderfully garish and Vegas-like costumes), Herb has his chance to shine. Performing his own medley, which includes "If I Were a Dreidel" and Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," he is endearing in his affability and innocence. There is also a hint of creepiness as he plays up the subtextual allusions to pedophilia in Springsteen's lyric.

The triumph of the show (as with earlier works) is the way in which the material and performances move from delicious tastelessness to biting satire to affecting wistfulness. Some people may take offense by Kiki's take on the Christmas story, calling Jesus a "rape baby," for instance, since the Bible does not refer to Mary's "consent" to become impregnated. But it is hard not to be moved by the periodic (and unspoken) tributes to Stephen Sondheim throughout the evening. In Herb's nearly constant underscoring, perceptive listeners will notice riffs and phrases from scores like Sunday in the Park with George, Company, and Follies. In addition, one of the encore songs is "Send in the Clowns," and it is a reverent and stunning rendition.

Kiki gleefully announced that last month she turned 91, but she has the energy and gams of someone decades younger. Kiki and Herb are perpetually on the comeback trail, and perhaps with the huge success of SLEIGH, Bond and Mellman will keep the nonagenarians back in the spotlight where they belong.

Kiki & Herb SLEIGH
Through December 4, 2021
Harvey Theater at BAM Strong (651 Fulton St Brooklyn, NY)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: