This month, I report of two of the most innovative shows I’ve seen in quite some time.
Salty Brine - Welcome to the Jungle
Is Salty Brine a drag queen? Well, yes and no. Is Welcome to the Jungle a cabaret show or a drag act? Well, both, yet neither!
Salty Brine is an actor, cabaret artist and playwright, who’s created a series of cabaret performances known as The Living Record Collection, that combine popular albums like Queen’s A Night at the Opera, Prince’s Purple Rain and Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, with alternate genres of music, works of literature, and even sex stories, resulting in fascinating mash-ups, the likes of which cabaret has rarely seen.
In Welcome to the Jungle, Salty gives us Harry Nilsson’s hit album Nilsson Schmilsson, interwoven with stories from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, all as a framework for the story of his disastrous, yet liberating trip to Camp Mowgli, in the wilds of New Hampshire. Here, in the spot chosen by his parents to turn him into a man, he “became gayer than he could’ve ever imagined!”
Entering to the sounds of bird calls and jungle noises from the band, Salty appeared in a costume of leaves, vines, and tendrils - a bit like a drag version of Swamp Thing, but far more glamorous! His opening number was actually Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” but from that point on, the Nilsson/Kipling meld took over. He described his parents fighting in the car en route to the camp, likening them to Kipling’s Shere Kahn and Tabaqui, all to the tune of Nilsson’s “Drivin’ Along.” He told of how he worked at camp, burning the contents of the latrines, while his parents worked on their divorce. Lonely nights at camp were illustrated by “One (is the Loneliest Number,)” and “Without You” became a yearning love song for Andrew, a boy on whom Salty developed a serious crush.
We heard some of his letters home, which became more and more desperate as the summer wore on, and there were funny stories, as when the challenge to spend a night in the woods alone was ruined by his brother, with a dreadful case of diarrhea, as Salty used Nilsson’s song, “Coconut” to pose the musical question “...ain’t there nothin’ I can take...to relieve this bellyache?” to which the answer was “You put de lime in de coconut, you drank ‘em bot’ up!” And Kipling’s story of Rikki Tikki Tavi’s fight with Nag, the cobra, was mirrored by Salty’s recollection of the triumphant moment he stood up to his camp bullies, underscored by “Let the Good Times Roll.”
While this might sound confusing, once you settle into the flow of the show, it’s really quite remarkable. Longer than most cabaret shows - almost 2 hours, by my count - it’s nonetheless fascinating throughout. My favorite moments involved the band, all of whom played several instruments and voiced characters from The Jungle Book, as they spilled off the stage and roamed the audience, playing, singing, and even staging the climactic battle, which led to Mowgli’s departure from the jungle, and Salty’s departure from camp. This moment, staged to Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” was powerful, joyous, and thrilling!
Salty Brine’s performance is so open, hilarious, vulnerable, honest and strong, that you can’t help but adore him. Welcome to the Jungle is a unique experience, and you owe it to yourself to live through it with this multifaceted performer.
Welcome to the Jungle returns to Pangea November 7, 14, 21, 28, and 29, all at 7:30. For more information, go to www.pangeanyc.com
Leslie Carrara-Rudolph - What Just Happened?!
Take a bit of cabaret, add a touch of Sesame Street, a dash of improv comedy, a little hit of Avenue Q, and filter it all through the charming, hyperkinetic whirlwind of talent that is Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, and you get “What Just Happened?!”, a funny, moving and fascinatingly inventive evening at the Laurie Beechman Theater.
Best known for performing the character of Abby Cadabby on Sesame Street, Carrara-Rudolph created this show as a means to bring her considerable talents to an adult audience. After a few staged false starts, she hit the stage with a singing lizard seemingly emerging from her pants. She was stopped by her friend Joe, who admonished her, explaining that in a real cabaret show, she had to rely on herself, not puppets, voices, or giant monster hands. When she tried nervously to sing her opening number, however, her natural instinct kicked in, and her hand took on a life of its own, singing “I’ve Got The World On A String” for her, sans puppet!
The show, once it took off, was a fabulous, whimsical grab-bag of songs and stories. After a lovely rendition of “Pure Imagination,” we met Lolly Lardpop, a sweet, candy-loving puppet, who lamented her lack of legs in a parody of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, singing ‘...the truth is, I never had legs...’ And in one of the show’s most inspired moments, a horrific kitchen accident, in which Carrara-Rudolph’s hand was mangled, was reenacted to comic effect, with a light box and shadow puppets!
We then met Granny Dot, a hilarious, 98-year-old grandmother puppet, who sang about her advanced age, and revealed her secret to long life: laughter! At this point, Leslie confessed to feeling faint, from hunger, and because Joe had advised her that a proper cabaret show always includes a medley, we were served a medley of songs from West Side Story, rewritten with food themes - ‘...when you’re a carb, you’re a carb all the way...’ She even picked up a bread roll from a table, which became a little puppet that sang a bit, before being eaten!
A crazed Wizard of Oz routine demonstrated Leslie’s superb improvisational skills, using an audience member’s sock which became Dorothy’s pigtails, Toto, the gatekeeper’s mustache, and the bluebirds from “Over the Rainbow!” Finally, Lolly returned and told a sweet, but heartbreaking story of her Uncle Michael, with whom she used to act out the Wizard of Oz, saying he was ‘over the rainbow, now.’
With a voice that’s a cross between a pleasant Broadway belt and a Betty Boop-ish squeak, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph is a force of nature onstage, and her humor, energy, and joy are absolutely infectious! With the help of musical director Michael Hicks, she closed out her show with Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh’s “Young at Heart,” a perfect choice, because as this show proves, Leslie is really just a big kid!
Leslie Carrara-Rudolph’s “What Just Happened?!” returns to the Laurie Beechman Theater November 18th, at 7 pm. For more information, go to www.westbankcafe.com