Posted May 31, 2012 at 3:18 pm
by Charles Isherwood, New York Times
An appropriate air of disorderly fabulousness pervades “Jukebox Jackie,” a scrapbook of a show at La MaMa that pays spirited tribute to Jackie Curtis, one of the pioneering gender adventurers who orbited Andy Warhol in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Conceived and directed by Scott Wittman, lyricist for the bubbly musical “Hairspray” and the television series “Smash,” the show features a cast of four embodying various aspects of the Curtis persona — or really I should say personae — as they reel through an evening of classic glitter-rock hits from the era, in between selections from Curtis’s songs, plays, poems and journals.
Center stage for much of the evening, in a slightly frumpy flowered frock and silver heels worn with black socks, is one of the current downtown scene’s leading lights, Justin Vivian Bond. Bond — who prefers not to be known as either a Mr. or a Ms. — is best known as the female half of Kiki & Herb, the brilliant imitation of a lounge act on the skids, who moved from cult fixtures of the East Village to Broadway headliners. An ambivalent attitude toward gender makes Bond an ideal embodiment of Curtis, whose attitude to his identity fluctuated from day to day.
In his memoir of the Warhol years, “Holy Terror,” Bob Colacello refers to Curtis as “a walking sexual question mark,” in contrast to Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, the more obsessively feminine conspirators in fame seeking who idled, vamped and camped in front of the Warhol movie cameras. Both were named, or at least half-named, by Curtis, but while they reveled in the trappings of old-fashioned femininity, Curtis careered in and out of dresses throughout his career, and more or less invented his own style of androgyny.
He did share his compatriots’ hunger for the exalting glare of the spotlight, which obliterates unhappy memories and confusing truths that are harder to shake in everyday life. “I want to hit the heights,” as Bond declares, with apt histrionics, in the opening moments of “Jukebox Jackie.” “I want to be a Broadway star. I don’t want to be just a cheap lady of the chorus who is always yearning for a star on the door and a dressing room full of roses!” (The quotation comes from Curtis’s journals.)
Curtis’s journey, from Lower East Side obscurity to fringe playwright (often produced at La MaMa, in fact) to Warhol superstardom, is sketched somewhat loosely in the ensuing 90 minutes or so. Bond and his co-stars — the buxom, blowzy cabaret performer Bridget Everett; the diminutive androgyne Cole Escola; and the swarthy, handsome Steel Burkhardt — take turns portraying aspects of Curtis between staged fragments of his plays and the re-creation of a scene from his one starring role in a Warhol movie, the women’s-lib spoof “Women in Revolt.”
If you are not intimately familiar with the Curtis oeuvre, I should warn, you are likely to be intermittently confused throughout “Jukebox Jackie.” You never quite know where you are, who’s supposed to be who, or exactly why they are doing what they are doing. (Some sort of identifiers might help.) Warhol himself, played by Mr. Escola, can be identified by the white wig and the gnomic pronouncements, but he makes only a cameo appearance here — poetic justice of a sort, since Curtis, who died in 1985, was relegated to a cameo turn in the wider arc of Warhol’s career.
But the unflagging energy and sheer originality of the performers concentrate your focus, particularly when they are singing to the accompaniment of the live band stationed to one side of the sleek white disc that constitutes the stage. (The Tony-winning Broadway veteran Scott Pask did the stylishly funky set.)
Ms. Everett, wearing only lingerie through most of the show, barrels through a muscular, thoroughly captivating performance of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” exuding the kind of flamboyant self-confidence — or self-absorption — that would have made her a natural Warhol superstar back in the day. (She evokes the similarly big-boned Brigid Berlin, especially when she’s poking herself with a hypodermic needle.)
Mr. Escola, a YouTube-born performer whose “Jeffery & Cole Casserole” appeared on the Logo television network, is punkish and puckish as the young, fame-hungry Curtis, dogging any celebrity he could find looking for an entree into showbiz. (“I wanted to work with them, not sleep with them,” he gripes when the objects of his obsession try putting the moves on him.) Mr. Burkhardt’s role in the proceedings is a bit more oblique. He certainly provides some eye candy — wearing black leather pants and a black tank top with the logo of the ’60s hangout Max’s Kansas City — but is perhaps also on hand to suggest the James Dean-ish machismo that lurked underneath Curtis’s skirts.
Bond most naturally embodies the Curtis who bloomed briefly before drug addiction felled him at the age of 38. Singing with an aching urgency in his sturdy, steely vibrato, or delivering excerpts from Curtis’s floridly written journals in the years after the spotlight had moved on, he exemplifies the combination of defiance and desperation that Curtis often glorified in his work.
But in general you get only a hazy appreciation for Curtis’s writing in “Jukebox Jackie.” The one identifiable poem, “B-Girls,” performed by the whole cast, is a numbingly repetitive trawl through the lives of the seedy characters in a bar that soon grows soggy with alliteration.
Still, Curtis’s distinctive sensibility comes through in flashes of savage humor. “Don’t you get tired with all these movies today about junkies and drug addicts and dope fiends?” Bond gripes at one point. “If we have to have movies like that, why can’t they all be musicals?”
Mr. Wittman and his collaborators have assembled something along those lines, but at times it comes close to mimicking the foggy ramblings of someone on an intense trip. And the jukebox reference in the title is appropriate. During the moments the show dragged for me I took comfort in knowing the record would be changing pretty soon.