Wednesday, March 31, 2010

One Hot Tamale

When you relax under the palapas on the beach at Puerto Vallarta, your reading or dozing or drinking is constantly interrupted by approaching local vendors. They tramp the hot sand all day loaded with beaded necklaces, woolen textiles, embroidered tablecloths, carved pipes, toys, and cheap sunglasses. If they're selling pipes they'll offer to sell you something to smoke in them; if they're selling paragliding sessions or rides on the banana boat they'll offer to get you the drug or massage or sex worker of your choice.

So one day when a portly shadow fell across my book ("The Three Weissmans of Westport," an extremely light novel appropriate to beach reading) I assumed it was another vendor and murmured "No, gracias," without looking up. It turned out to be the accomplished American comedienne, actress, and jazz musician Lea DeLaria handing out promotional leaflets for her show.

Real entertainment is hard to come by in vacation settings. If you can find any at all it's usually of the cruise ship variety, some local expatriate warbling Don Ho-type cover songs to drunken tourists. But DeLaria is the real deal, and my friends and I were surprised that a performer with her credentials had to sell her professional wares on the beach under the hot Mexican sun. Among many other things she's an established Broadway veteran, known for her unforgettable interpretation of the tom boyish cabdriver Hildy Esterhazy in the late-90s revival of On the Town. She also toured as the insomniac princess in Once Upon a Mattress, the breakthrough role that established Carol Burnett's career. And DeLaria is no stranger to controversy, having famously announced, at the beginning of the first Clinton administration, that at last there was a first lady she would want to fuck.

The room DeLaria was performing in was intimate to say the least, really just part of a bar or lounge seating fifty people at most. Accompanied by a pianist, she came out in a black curly wig and and a sort of gown in opposition to any expectations we might have had about her legendary androgyny. Both were shed pretty early on, and we were treated to a line-up of beautifully modulated standards. DeLaria is a belter and a crooner, able to shape and mould a Big Band or Jazz standard to her unique interpretations, and probably one of the few performers of her generation who even attempts scat singing. She's also hilariously funny, savagely picking on members of the audience but rewarding them for their suffering by calling them up to the stage and serving them large helpings of Tequila. Like any great performer she knows how to work her audience, sharing industry-insider stories, like the time she had to share a dressing room with the incomparable Elaine Stritch, whom she described as "beef jerky in a teddy." It seems that when the actress and singer Jennifer Holliday stopped by without her makeup and wig, Stritch mistook her for a maid and said, "I'm so glad you're here. We're out of toilet paper." Who doesn't enjoy good celebrity dish?

And as if to break her own magic spell at various points in her act, DeLaria would switch over to a little sing-song number reminiscent of PeeWee Herman's act that she called "What's Going On In the Street," where she would amble playfully over to the balcony that looked out onto the cobble-stoned street below, mic in hand. "Hey!" she'd bellow at someone below. "What's going on in the street?!" And because it was a Mexican vacation resort, usually it was someone on their way to get laid, which she was happy to report back to the audience.

I'm sorry to say the show was only about an hour long, but it reminded me of what a unique performer she is, and to be sure to pick up one of her CDs. Her comedy albums include Bulldyke in a Chinashop and Box Lunch; her jazz albums are Play It Cool, Double Standards, The Very Best of Lea DeLaria, and Lea DeLaria -- The Live Smoke Sessions. Check them out.

No comments:

Post a Comment