As the curtain opens, the Australian multitalented and internationally admired artist, Melissa Madden Gray, known as Meow Meow, sparkles and shimmers sitting high above the stage in an elaborately feathered get-up. Then, in the first few minutes, as smoke from her cigarette amusingly wafts out of the cigarette-less side of her face, we understand that we’re witnessing much more than a traditional song and dance act.
An Audience with Meow Meow is more like a comedy of the absurd, a burlesque, with physical comedy at the beginning and some sober and somber moments at the end. A large part of the charm of the performance is trying to figure out where Meow Meow is heading. So I don’t want to give too much away.
For 90 minutes, irrespective of which of many costumes she is wearing, it is impossible to keep one’s eyes away from Meow Meow. She is adorable and sexy and is happy to let the audience appreciate her Madonna-like bustier corset and fishnet stockings. For a few minutes, I was wondering if we were going to witness a Janet Jackson moment. No slips-up there — Meow Meow is much too professional.
At the start of what we think is her act, she and her two dancers, Bob Gaynor and Michael Balderrama (great stage name!) devolve into funny and well-executed slapstick bits as everything in the show seems to go wrong and fall apart. And if there is a theme to the performance, it is that Meow Meow is supposed to follow the producers’ script, but she can’t and won’t adhere to its narrow focus — and damn the consequences.
Meow Meow charms us with her amazing singing voice, wide vocal range and varied acting styles, as she goes from tough to tender. Her songs include that hard to forget 1960 hit by Brian Hyland, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” which Meow Meow sings in several languages, as well as sophisticated and passion-filled songs by Brecht and Eisler (“The German Miserere”) and Jacques Brel (“Ne Me Quitte Pas”).
Written by Meow Meow, and adapted and directed by Emma Rice of Kneehigh Theatre (The Wild Bride, and Tristan and Yseult), An Audience with Meow Meow is mostly successful. The attempts at political commentary fell somewhat flat, and the end of the performance could use some tightening. But this show provides an entertaining evening of something completely different. If you are sitting in the front seats, be ready to be invited (or dragged) to the stage for audience participation. A receptive and responsive audience helps to make the show come alive.
An Audience with Meow Meow plays through Oct. 19. For information and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.
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