The Duplex – July 29, August 20, 27
“Comedian/singer Keri Heidecker has always attracted freaks. And she is one.”
So read an online tag for her show, “Freak Magnet.” The idea piqued my interest. I imagined something approximating early John Waters movies, only in a cabaret setting. I didn’t necessarily imagine that, as in that notorious scene in Waters’s Pink Flamingos, dog excrement would be consumed onstage, but I was anticipating something slightly dangerous.
What I saw turned out to be devoid of Pink Flamingos grotesquery. Heidecker is an affable young woman with a somewhat chirpy speaking voice and a repertoire of flustered and perturbed expressions. She suggested to me what it might have been like seeing a young Charlotte Rae honing her act for the Blue Angel several decades ago. Heidecker began the evening singing Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” the botanical list-song introduced by the waifish Barbara Harris in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. It was a cute number for a cute singer, and Heidecker added some playful embellishments: she emitted a provocative growl on the words “hot as brandy,” and on the phrase “come up and see the hoot we’re giving” she put a hand on her hip to strike a Mae West pose. It proved a charming opening, but it didn’t really set up the evening’s “freak” theme.
Heidecker might have done better to lead off with a customized rendition of the Sinatra classic “Everything Happens to Me.” It seems that if there are wackos in a grocery store or weirdoes in a ladies room, they somehow glom on to Keri. But I’m not sure that her plight is something that most New Yorkers would find to be especially unusual. We’ve all encountered plenty of eccentrics—and harbor our own embarrassing eccentricities. Few of the anecdotes Heidecker related between songs were really beyond the pale. She said her life was like a “B” movie written by Woody Allen and directed by Salvador Dali. However, from the things she sang and talked about (a woman with a fear of lettuce, a physically challenged prankster), I would have guessed a collaboration between Joan Rivers and Erma Bombeck.
About half of the songs Heidecker sang were original material, with her lyrics set to melodies by the show’s music director/accompanist, Rick Jensen; the show’s director, Lina Koutrakos, contributed to the collaboration. Some of these numbers had some funny premises and giggle-worthy lyrics, but the rhymes could have been more precise and the punch lines a bit punchier. Maybe the best of the bunch was “Germs: A Jazz Waltz,” an ode to mysophobia with the laugh-getting opening: “Meningitis, sinusitis….” Later in the song, though, Heidecker settled for rhyming “salmonella” with “fishes.” Huh? (“Paella” would have been at least a little closer.) Still, she had particular fun performing this original stuff. In “Fan Letter,” a paean to her idol, Faith Prince, Heidecker sang about shellacking the star’s half-eaten pancake. She mimed her contemplation of this trophy—holding it aloft as if she were Hamlet admiring Yorick’s skull. It was a good moment.
I liked much of what Heidecker did with some of the standards in her show. She had clear enunciation and a pleasingly warm voice that could turn sultry and whispery (Gene de Paul and Sammy Cahn’s “Teach Me Tonight”), or sweetly joyful (a ballad-tempo version of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love”). I just wish that she had pushed through to a higher excitement level in the climax of certain songs. Case in point was DeSylva, Brown & Henderson’s “Lucky Day (This Is My),” a song that’s always been a welcome selection in my book. Heidecker steered smoothly through the course of the sprightly number but didn’t quite manage enough emotional oomph in the final stretch.
I don’t believe Keri Heidecker is a freak. I think, though, that if she would take a few more risks—maybe let loose with some freakier vocal chops—she could begin to enter the same sphere as Faith Prince, Barbara Harris and other pixie-ish powerhouses whose work she clearly wishes to emulate.
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.