Entertainment

Varla Jean Merman as "The Medium"

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Wednesday Oct 31, 2012
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Varla Jean Merman is ’The Medium’
Varla Jean Merman is ’The Medium’  

When I first heard about "The Medium," I assumed, wrongly, that this was the opera performed last year by the New York City Opera. As it turned out, "The Medium" deals with very similar subject matter, a phony spiritualist who preys on grieving parents of deceased children and who becomes undone by her deceptions.

Unlike "Seance on a Wet Afternoon," however, "The Medium" is mercifully short (about an hour). It’s also more tuneful and the Gian Carlo Menotti score is better paced. If less psychologically probing, it’s a lot spookier.

The theme makes it perfect for Halloween, and some inventive lighting gives the production in a very limited run at the West Side Y the feel of grotesque ’50s horror comic books like "Tales of The Crypt." But what makes this production so thoroughly enjoyable is the star turn by Jeffery Roberson.

You know him as the one and only Varla Jean Merman, and when I say "star," I mean "above the marquee, bigger than life, everything’s coming up roses" star. Varla Jean approximates a female soprano, although chances are you won’t be seeing her portraying Mimi, Violetta, Butterfly or Tosca at your local opera house anytime soon.

What makes this production so enjoyable is the star turn by Jeffery Roberson. You know him as the one and only Varla Jean Merman, and when I say "star," I mean "above the marquee, bigger than life, everything’s coming up roses."

So what? Unlike many operatic divas, she is a real, live singing actress. Literally towering above the rest of the cast in her stiletto heels and Pucci-esque dresses as she swills whole bottles of Jack Daniels (she’s first seen unloading a bag full of Jack, one of many great throwaway visual gags), she’s like a Joan Crawford who overdosed on human growth hormone.

Joan in her gargoyle "Mommie Dearest" phase fits Madame Flora, who terrorizes her daughter, Monica and Toby, a mute, violin-playing orphan she picked up off the streets of Budapest. (Since when did opera plots ever make sense?)

The claustrophobic set nicely reflects Flora’s house. One gets the feeling that poor Monica was never allowed to make friends, if she were even allowed out of the house, which would explain her attachment to Toby, who at least lives under the same roof.

Stefanie Izzo gives Monica just the right "Carrie"-like tortured adolescent girl-feeling. Edmund Bagnell can not only play his character’s violin parts beautifully, but also he’s totally convincing as a much put-upon young man frustrated by his inability to articulate his feeling in the spoken word. The rest of the cast is filled out by two sets of grieving parents suckered into the tricks Flora plays on them with Monica and Toby’s help.

The whole thing may be lighter-than-air fare, but it’s a cheesy fun, self-referential and yet genuinely creepy, like one of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Thanks to director Donna Drake and Varla Jean, you’ll be drawn into a woman’s psychodrama that literally ends with a bang.

"The Medium" runs through Nov. 11 at the Marjorie S. Dean Little Theater, 10 W. 64th St. For info or tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit brownpapertickets.com

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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