The Birch is Back

Cabaret chameleon Melissa Birch takes the kind of performance risks that can come back to bite you in the ass--literally.

She has been mistaken for a drag queen when she dons Yesterday's tacky nightclub garb, which led to one unfortunate incident in which a satyr-like admirer literally chewed her ass. ("The teeth marks were in my buttocks for two weeks. It was nasty.")

For Yesterday's repertoire, Birch's dusky alto embraces some of the syrup of Karen Carpenter, but the performer's style is most reminiscent of Janis Joplin and the early '70s school of bluesy pop typified by Bette Midler, Bonnie Raitt, and Maria Muldaur. It's stuff that comfortably traverses singer-songwriter mellowness, earth-mama sexiness, and revamped cabaret. The orgasmic melismas and ha-cha-cha growling are clearly parody, but Birch--whether in character or not--rarely allows camp to blot out the emotional impact of the material.

On Dizzy, Faint, and Short of Breath, Live!, an album Birch issued before leaving for New York, Yesterday covers '70s and '80s radio fare such as Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors" and Bonnie Tyler's "It's a Heartache," along with less familiar tunes by Tom Waits and Randy Newman. The between-song banter is half the show, a mix of ribald goofiness (on her corporeal development: "Of course my breasts came last, right around 35. Yeah, I had to wait for my grandmother to die") and bleak revelations delivered in a disquietingly maudlin manner ("What could [virginity] mean to a girl who'd lost hers at eight-and-a-half to a family friend who was desperately in love with my mother").

"There was a period when I was doing [Yesterday] before I moved to New York when I was doing some heavy-duty, really kind of angry work with her," says Birch. "That was referencing my mother, sort of referencing that Joan Crawford kind of female hysteria--film-noir kind of women. She's definitely sprung from a lot of that. But now she just likes to drink her wine and sing her songs. I think in the past I've been too pretentious. I've made a concerted effort, especially in the last year or two, to have the integrity there, but to make it entertaining, too."

 

The large windows that dominate the rear wall of the small Bryant-Lake Bowl stage are covered during most performances. Birch keeps them exposed for the second half of her current Red Curtain show, The Bitch Is Back!, a tribute to Elton John. It's a smart move: Lake Street is an interesting backcloth, and Birch has a carnival barker's knack for turning ogling passersby into patrons. She waves to them, lets them sneak in through the stage door. She has managed to make a tiny house swell into a respectable crowd by this method--in July, she plans to lead Red Curtain patrons on a walking tour of Lyn-Lake so they won't be cooped up inside all night. "Here's some good seats," she tells a young couple after they sheepishly enter the theater from the most visible entrance. "Have you tried the burger? They have a great buuhrger," she adds in her amusing cockney rock-star accent, less Elton John than Absolutely Fabulous.

The Bitch Is Back! is a change-up for the Red Curtain in that it dispenses with featured guests and high-art flirtations. As usual, Birch is accompanied by pianist Steve Pomije, an able player with an unwittingly charming stage presence that Birch likes to exploit. "I'm the butt of all her sexual jokes," says Pomije, a classical composition major who's currently working on an opera.

For the Elton show, Birch and Pomije are augmented by drummer Tonya Moore, Kate Lynch on bass and harmony vocals, and Annie Enneking on harmony vocals and general hamming and wisecracking (her best line, deadpanned before "Someone Saved My Life Tonight": "Let's soft rock"). The rhythm section is shaky but spirited, and Birch--dressed in ridiculously ragtag costumes (bunny ears, tutu, striped tights healthily padded around the genitalia) sings with the proper mix of silly artifice and old-fashioned sincerity.

She hops around, thrusts her pelvis (Birch wants the next rock tribute to be to Robert Plant), swigs wine, and teases her band, yet sings the ballads with an eyes-closed passion that's clearly tongue-out-of-cheek. Considering the popularity of tribute bands, Birch could probably make a career out of this act, though one suspects that such a path would quickly bore her.

Richie Itch, speaking from Ms. Birch's cell phone, prefers Sinatra and Dean Martin, but says he has an open mind about what the Red Curtain Cabaret presents. "You gotta put on the show, and say, 'That's not, uh, anything I would ever do,'" he says, and then seems to sum up his creator's artistic philosophy. "You have to, uh, celebrate difference. I saw that idea [on a bumper sticker]. You have to appreciate culture in all of its, uh, eccentricity."

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