A New Medium

BRIAN KELLOW chats with Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson) as the incomparable nightclub performer prepares to sing Madame Flora in The Medium at NYC's Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater.

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Jeffery Roberson as Madame Flora
© Todd Perley 2012
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© Michael von Redlich 2012

It must be nearly twenty years since I first saw her act at the long-defunct downtown New York club Eighty-Eights, but Varla Jean Merman remains the funniest nightclub performer I have experienced. For years, Varla Jean — an innocent at heart, whose quest for true love lands her in one sordid mess after another, has been telling her story in such unforgettable numbers as "Dark Lady," "Frankfurter Sandwiches" and "Talk to the Genitals," to say nothing of her stunning medley of "Un bel dì vedremo" and "I Will Survive." But Varla Jean, who continues to insist that she's the spawn of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman's less-than-a-month union, has recently sought to stretch herself artistically, taking on the taxing role of Baba in Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium at the Art House in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The trouble is that when Varla Jean stepped out onstage as Madame Flora, some people in the audience had a tendency to laugh. Now, Varla Jean's alter ego, actor Jeffery Roberson, will sing the opera at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater in New York City, from October 25 to November 11. Donna Drake directs, and Elizabeth Hastings is musical director. This time, Roberson hopes his efforts will be taken a little more seriously.  

ON: This is such a terrific thing for you to be doing. How did you come up with the idea?

JR: Mark, my manager, had the idea. I've listened to the piece, and love it, but I'm not a trained musician. When I really worked on it, I thought my head would explode. I said yes before I thought about it. Being angry and singing in falsetto don't really go together. It's like having Tiny Tim screaming at you. It sounds annoying if you don't do it right. But it's great to be doing a serious piece. We did it in Provincetown, as Varla Jean Merman, which was a big mistake. It's like seeing Edith Bunker in Turandot. I shared a dressing room with Patti LuPone. Dream for me, nightmare for her. I only went through her handbag once. So now we say, JEFFERY ROBERSON. It's such a disturbing piece. I don't believe in the supernatural, but I do believe in mental illness, and Baba is someone, I think, who is suffering from mental illness — a control freak who is brought to her knees.

We're setting the story in New Orleans in the 1950s. I picture Baba growing up in a neighborhood called Storyville, kind of like the French Quarter, which they tore down in the early part of the century. It was filled with syphilis and brothels. They tore it down because it was riddled with disease and crime, and I was thinking that if she grew up there, she could have caught syphilis, and her brain could have gone to cheese. I live in New Orleans now, and I still see some horrible stuff. There are so many poor people in New Orleans now, who still live such horrible lives.

ON: Were there other portrayals of Baba that you've seen that influenced you one way or the other?

JR: I listened to the original woman, Claramae Turner, do it. She was amazing. I watched the movie with Marie Powers, and I saw Joyce Castle. My thing was finding the vulnerability. People are hateful for a reason. I try to find that. If there's one thing I can do, it's to be vulnerable. I am probably the biggest and softest Baba yet.

ON: This is a part that many singers do at the end of their careers.

JR: The mezzo's last stop! I guess this is it for me! I guess it's all over, and thanks for the memories! These intervals — if you ever wanted to build a break into your voice, this is the show for you. But it's wonderful to be doing this piece. I'm finding my inner abusive alcoholic mother. Everything but the mother is coming easily! Varla Jean never really gets angry. And now I'm shouting out "DAMN YOU!" on a high G! spacer 

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