David Mills’s “glamour + despair”
Comedian/actor/writer David Mills describes glamour + despair, his new show at Pangea, as a cabaret entertainment. He was born in America but has spent over 20 years in the U.K. developing a career as a stand-up comedian and actor. He has now moved back to the States (Brooklyn to be more specific) and while continuing with stand-up, he wanted to spread his artistic wings He claims that there is no room in comedy for art, while in cabaret there is no money but lots of space to create because “nobody cares about cabaret!” It will be comedy’s loss and cabaret’s gain if he decides to pursue this arena further. It might be a bit premature to bandy about words like “brilliant,” but it did keep occurring to me during his hour on stage.
The “set” for the show is a chair, a music stand with a script, a microphone in a stand, and a piano (played wonderfully well by Jody Shelton); Mills inhabits it with such a sense of ownership and such a relaxed, commanding presence that there is a sophisticated, theatrical excitement to his performance that is rare for a comedy cabaret. His combination of straight ahead (if such a term can be used about a fervently, unashamedly out performer for whom LGBTQ concerns, comments and pointed jabs are front and center) stand-up or, in his case, sit-down comedy with beautifully realized character monologues (often tied to unique and personal interpretations of songs from various genres) further sets him apart from other comedians on the scene. His bracing intelligence, skewed view of life, unbridled wit, and piercing dramatic chops push his act to the lofty heights of the best comedy has to offer.
His wry, witheringly acerbic, and topical observations are constantly hilarious and often surprising. Mills views contemporary culture—its foibles, its inanities, and its insanities with the scathing, jaundiced eye of the outsider. His direct interactions with audience members are not only fodder for some hysterical bits of improv, but also quite different from anything I have seen before; he seems as interested in what the audience has to say back to him as in what he is discussing. In their best moments (of which there are many) the monologues and characters he has created recall those of Tennessee Williams and other masters of drama and although each is free standing, the accumulation of these snapshots of humanity create a sort of “shadow play” that deepens the observational comedy with which it shares the stage.
His opening song, “Queen of the Ghetto” (Rich Cason), is the oddest, most disconnected opening number I may have ever seen. It’s a ’60s R&B story song originally done by Bobby Taylor. He starts the show with it cold—no set-up, no character, no comment at all either before or after. It might be an attempt to be edgy and unexpected, or it might, I suppose, be autobiographical but it gets the show off on a wrong and confusing note. He recovers immediately as he jumps into his dissection of “Pride Month” or (as he expands it with pre- and post-Pride weeks) of “Pride Season.” He confesses that he doesn’t have that much pride.
Later on, he provides a blistering dissection of the response to the pandemic and how it rests entirely on the straight population. His comparison of the uninspired hetero response to COVID with the inspired, fashionable response of the gay community to the last plague is as fearless as it is funny and a high point of the set. It grows into a mock Ted Talk on how straight men need to discover “the closet’”and use it. But Mills is an equal-opportunity attacker, and the gay community comes in for its fair share of mocking as well.
While music is a secondary element of the show, what’s there is very good indeed. A sharply drawn monologue grows into a moving, tragic “Something Cool” (Billy Barnes). The ballsiest moment of the night comes when he interrupts a stark, painful take on Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover” to walk into the audience, sit at a table opposite a young woman and have a sharp and funny conversation with her, before returning to the stage to finish singing Parton’s story of a baby stillborn to a poor, abandoned mother. I can’t think of another performer who could not only get away with it but succeed beyond anyone’s dreams. Not all the musical moments are as successful. A reworking of The Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” (David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth) to reflect January 6 and the cast of MAGA buffoons that populated it, was funny enough, but the blunt, obvious targets paled in comparison to the ingenuity and specificity of rest of the hour.
In an evening filled with chances taken and small and large triumphs achieved, Mills dares to end with a totally dramatic monologue that bookends his equally successful opening monologue. It’s a brilliant finish to a remarkable show that demands to be seen. This is the beginning of a major career on this side of the Atlantic so I would strongly suggest you try to experience David Mills in glamour + despair in the intimacy of Pangea; you will gain the bragging rights to say that you “saw him when….”
Presented at Pangea, 178 Second Ave., NYC, June 15, 22, July 6, 13, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”