Ginger Snappy ’Randy Roberts’
Gender illusionist Randy Roberts met me at Cafe Flore to discuss his solo cabaret show, "Randy Roberts Live!," opening tonight, Thursday, October 10, at the Alcove Theater downtown. He ordered a Cobb salad as the fog rolled in, draping a black-and-white checked scarf over his heather gray henley, before adding a navy blue wide-wale corduroy jacket. He made it work with lemon yellow pants, workaday mascara, and a single diamond stud earring.
I wanted to interview him for two reasons. His show, which I caught during its trial run in July, deserves an audience. That’s when I fell in love with him - I mean her, his alter ego, the lady he turns into onstage. His anima. I wanted to meet the artist responsible for the dazzlingly androgynous energy flow that made me feel better about the world we’re all forced to inhabit.
As an entertainer, Roberts is a rare breed in San Francisco, where audiences are used to "supporting" people who clamber up onstage. It’s shocking to sit back, relax, and be taken care of by someone who can sing, tell jokes, and knowingly ad-lib with the audience, while flawlessly made-up, bewigged, and decked out in spangly costumes and heels. A showbiz professional.
He’s also a natural, performing since he was 5, trying on his sister’s clothes age 9, doing drag in Norfolk, Virginia gay bars at 18. Somewhere along the line, this perfectionist got his performance in perspective. "Drag is not a sexual thing for me," he says. "This is my job. I don’t want to be a woman. I don’t need to be a woman. It’s a gimmick that’s kept me working."
The inner lady doth protest too much, mayhaps. But at his age - which I won’t reveal except to say he’s reached the level of artistry where technique trumps enthusiasm, magnificently - he’s got his act together; he’s got the kinks out. Rather, the kinks are inbuilt. Exhibitionism is a clinical category for a reason. As is voyeurism, which is what I was doing. Biology is short, art is long.
To cover one of his costume changes, Roberts conceived and directed a video of himself applying make-up backstage while singing "Put a Little More Mascara On," from Jerry Herman’s La Cage. This age-old theatrical ritual is very moving. The innate humility of the practiced performer, awe-inspiring. The face, the mask, the persona, the transformation - letting us in on the secret paradoxically enhancing its power.
If I describe his show, it’ll sound corny, and it is, and yet, how can I put this? His purity of heart redeems show biz. He does Cher, dripping black-and-white bugle-beads, warping vowel sounds weirdly in an instantly recognizable way that’s 40 years behind the times, except Cher’s in some crazy way immortal, right? As is early Bette Midler, retelling Sophie Tucker jokes. Material he describes with an old-fashioned term, blue.
Randy Roberts out of drag. Photo: Annabel Williams
There’s nostalgia at work here, not only for bygone entertainers and the sexy 70s or tawdry 20s, but the notion of entertainment itself. Show biz as a concept, a force for good in a cynical world. Randy Roberts, a true believer, is here to transport us and our loved ones to an alternate space-time continuum, where show tunes properly belted are wildly therapeutic. And the resurrection of bygone divas downright mystical. Thanks to the miracle of sublimation, aka technical mastery.
Her onstage authority streams from an all-around familiarity with the form. Every two years, Roberts produces, directs, and stars in a musical revue alongside Broadway musical headliners, in front of a 13-piece orchestra sporting RR insignia, at the Tennessee Williams Theater in Key West, Florida. He played a Cher impersonator on One Life to Live circa 2009, and appears in Alan Cumming’s new film, Any Day Now. But live performance is where she comes alive.
At the end of the show, Roberts emerges as herself, a glamorous redhead, one of a kind, original. Just plain gorgeous, grinding her way through the silly-erotic "If I Can’t Sell It, I’m Gonna Sit Down on It." You can get a sense of her on YouTube, but cameras don’t do her justice. You gotta be there for it. If not at the Alcove, then at Martuni’s, where he’s backed by the buoyant Tammy Hall on piano.
Through Nov. 2, Thurs.-Sat. at 9 p.m., $40, Alcove Theater, 441 Mason St., SF. Through Oct. 28, Mondays at 7 p.m., Martuni’s, 4 Valencia St., SF, (415) 241-0205