One bearded lady is special – but when coming up with a title for his Philadelphia cabaret group, John Jarboe thought, “What if we had more than one bearded lady? Can you imagine a whole troupe of bearded ladies?”
With men who don dresses and women outfitted with facial hair singing, the group certainly lives up to its name.
The troupe is set to present its newest fundraiser show “Mommie Queerest,” a campy opera version of the film “Mommie Dearest,” on Jan. 26 at the Wilma Theater, with a cocktail reception preceding the show. The second showing is on Feb. 2.
Started in 2010, the company has since seen much support from audiences for its queer, experimental brand of musical theater. Jarboe, the artistic director, said this kind of theater is rare in the local arts community.
“We’re trying to create queer spaces and also explore different structures of theater and art that are not necessarily male or heterosexual,” Jarboe said. “A lot of plays have certain structures that reinforce norms and we’re trying to create work that subverts norms.”
Jarboe said audiences are craving a fresh take on theatrical productions that encourage audience interaction.
“Beyond the LGBTQ community, I think [audiences] are hungry for work that is live and explicitly live,” Jarboe said. “Work that insists on its ‘live-ness’ is very important nowadays when we’re constantly typing or behind screens.”
“We sit on your laps, we touch your face and talk directly to you,” Jarboe said. “I think that’s pretty radical nowadays.”
“Mommie Dearest” is a movie based off the memoir of Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of actress Joan Crawford, who is depicted as a traumatic and abusive mother.
Bearded Ladies’ music director Heath Allen came up with the idea to turn the film into an opera, but that doesn’t mean it’ll only be limited to operatic music. With experience as a composer, musician, bandleader and theater worker since 1975, Allen sees this show as another opportunity for him to be able to stretch out his varied musical expertise.
“It’s definitely fun and it’s a good fit for my musical skill,” Allen said. “It’s always a challenge to make sense of such a diverse musical palette that I have so this is a really good fit for me. I can use a lot of different musical styles within one show.”
Dito Van Reigersberg, founding artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company and alternately known as drag queen Martha Graham-Cracker, is the guest Beard to star alongside Jarboe in “Mommie Queerest” as they fight over who gets to play Joan Crawford, all with an accompanying chorus.
This isn’t the artistic director’s first collaboration with the Bearded Ladies, having played secretary Miss Moneypenny in “Beards Are For Shaving: a 007 Cabaret,” as well as a featured role in “My Dinner with Dito.”
As fun and ridiculous BLC productions can be, it also makes a point to highlight themes and ideas related to pop culture, gender, gender roles and more in the productions. “Mommie Queerest” is no exception, with its look into how the movie has drawn a cult following by the LGBTQ community.
Reigersberg said this may be because gay men are often fascinated by Joan Crawford’s strong, yet tortured, character.
“Having been a drag queen for a long time, I do feel that there’s a power in getting in touch with the strong woman inside of you, and that’s sort of a different power than being a strong man,” Reigersberg said. “It just has a different flavor and feeling.”
“All of our shows have a surface fun, but there’s also serious thinking underneath and that’s really imbedded in the history of cabaret,” Allen said.
But members of the Bearded Ladies said they are trying to avoid the mistake the movie made in taking itself too seriously and in true Bearded fashion, they said there will be plenty of fun and audience participation throughout the show.
“I think that’s something we’re exploring; sometimes the broken things are better, but sometimes we just really like it because it’s way over the top and it gives us an excuse to wear high heels and say ridiculous lines like ‘No more wire hangers,’” Jarboe said.
A $25 ticket includes drinks and for those brave enough to join in during the show, they can bring or buy goodie bags with a swim cap, hand sanitizer, wire hanger and “ideally not a real one, but some sort of axe.”
Albert Hong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org