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'Worst of Varla' Is All Dressed Up in High Camp

Theater Beat

March 23, 2001|JANA J. MONJI

What do you do when your parents file restraining orders against you? In the case of one 6-foot-2 redhead, you make an educational, multimedia show.

In his "The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman," at the Hudson Avenue Theatre, Jeffery Roberson gives cross-dressing and self-absorption a good name. Appearing in a lemon-yellow vinyl jumpsuit, sleeves trimmed with long fringe (designed by Philip Heckman), this purported "love-child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine" looks like a beefy Ann-Margret and sings in a style that mixes opera and country and western.

With her pianist, musical director Michael Brill, on a white baby grand, which is almost as large as the framed photo of Varla Jean that hangs above it, Varla Jean doesn't pout about her parental problems, she obsesses.

In this high-camp production, Varla Jean takes on fashion, Freud and Tokyo. She perverts some favorite childhood songs to hilarious effect and is never short on sexual innuendo. During her costume changes, Varla Jean proves that she's ready for her close-up in video segments. Attempting to follow the footsteps of such great celluloid divas as Demi Moore, she wrote and stars in a video of an American classic novel. Varla Jean's "Mockin'Bird Hill" is her version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" after reading only the first page of the novel. There's a slight Hitchcockian flavor to her version, but don't worry--this big-boned babe with a large-size personality gets her final revenge.

Her obsession with Hello Kitty forces her to journey to Japan to add a sold-in-Japan-only Hello Kitty toaster to her collection. Imagine a tall redhead in the middle of a children's entertainment center surrounded by puzzled Japanese children and their parents.

From her voluminous red-striped ball gown to her short little black dress to her vibrant yellow formal gown with an oversized pink sequined flower, Varla Jean manages to look like she spent a lot of money to look cheap. Roberson under the direction of Michael Schiralli is a class act in a cabaret format with a little crassness for fun.

*

"The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman," Hudson Avenue Theatre, 6537 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Dark next Sunday. Ends April 15. $20-$25. (323) 930-9304. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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