A tough crowd can be murder, and some performers respond by making sure the noose is fastened securely. They get hostile, apologetic, or desperate; they clam up, speed up, or give up. Melissa Birch is better than that. She faces a lukewarm audience with an equanimity that's as fun to watch as a second encore. She's not dying or bombing this night at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, but she's not exactly knocking 'em dead, either. None of those martial or morbid ways of describing a gig's success or failure--language that seems to treat every show like a stop on a Bob Hope USO tour--fits for how gracefully the singer-performance artist is fomenting nonchalance.
Oddball revivalist Jack Norton has tapped Birch to serve as an emcee between his sets of hot jazz, puppetry, and bad jokes. Norton has been having an off night, and the crowd is a bit leaden. They might not be primed for an improvisational performer in drag whose monologue is frequently suspended by long pauses and some diligent toothpick wielding that must be after a firmly entrenched shred of corn.
Birch is playing one of her troika of cabaret characters, Richie Itch, a lovable numbskull from Atlantic City, though his Joe Pesci-meets-Rocky Balboa accent could work as a general caricature of an East Coast proletarian. His résumé includes working on a lobster boat in Maine and driving a school bus. He's currently on disability after a Sweet Hereafter-like school bus accident that he'd "rather not discuss." With his thrift-store evening clothes--tuxedo pants, cummerbund, billowing red shirt--one expects an off-color joke or a drunken rendition of "The Lady Is a Tramp." But Richie just talks. He gives glimpses of his druggy past, trails off in mid-sentence, breaks an awkward silence with a drawn-out "buuhht." After 10 minutes or so, he invites questions, an offer that's greeted with another outpouring of indifference.
"What is the nature of your act?" I call out. This is the first time I've seen Richie, and I'm genuinely unsure. He riffs for a moment on the nature of nature, then comes clean. "I don't really have an act," he says. Long pause. "I ran track in high school."
"I did a benefit for the One Voice Mixed Chorus in a church in Edina," says Birch a few days later over lunch at the BLB. "They all thought I was on LSD, but they had a great time." New crowds, even tough crowds like the one at the Jack Norton show, can be a treat for Birch, whose work seems to thrive on an air of mild discomfort. Still, it's probably best to see Birch on her home turf, which for a bit over a year has been the BLB's Red Curtain Cabaret. Birch is the curator, host, and featured singer for the Tuesday night showcase of music, dance, puppetry, experimental theater, and whatever her guests opt to present. She chooses a theme for each month--say, country-western songs and culture, or next month's homage to Berlin cabaret of the 1920s.
As a performer, Birch tends to be eccentric, voluble, loudly dressed, and risqué, all qualities that seem to contrast with her normal comportment. Offstage, she favors well-worn jeans and T-shirts, is friendly but somewhat guarded, and chooses her words carefully. She's especially pensive when recounting her move to New York in '97. She left the Twin Cities in an effort to get a master's degree in performance studies from NYU, an ultimately abandoned idea that she now dismisses as "stupid" and "very expensive."
She resettled in Minneapolis a few weeks after September 11. Since coming back, she has been focusing more on singing and serving as a kind of underground arts ambassador than on the performance art and character work that defined her stuff in the past. She's still figuring out the makeup of her post-return audience.
"More and more the gay men are turning out," she says. "I had a huge lesbian following when I was here before, which has kind of gone away for whatever reason." She suspects that some of her lesbian audience has been siphoned off by Dykes Do Drag, a long-running showcase of gender-swapping music and performance that regularly plays at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. "I think Dykes Do Drag is a great show," she says. "But I also think it's a social event. It's a place for people to dress up and be seen and not be challenged. I just know that I don't really put on those gay events."
Before her sojourn in New York, Birch performed almost exclusively as Yesterday, a boozy cabaret singer with a sordid past and a runaway sex drive. Yesterday is a female character, but one Birch considers as drag as Richie. "I'm a pretty gender-neutral person on the street. Especially when I was first doing her--when you put me in four-inch heels and a wig and a dress, it was odd. It's still really odd, and some audiences--they don't really know. It's femme drag. For a woman who's a lot more feminine in her life, it wouldn't be drag. But because I do it, it's contradictory."
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."