This review was originally written for The Public Review.
This double bill of a drag act and a singing string quartet may not be an obvious pairing. But they both seem to appeal to a similar audience demographic which should be obvious by the end of this review. First is Varla Jean Merman in The Book of Merman, a show with a mixture of music, comedy and videos. The show starts with Varla’s version of Bonnie Tyler’s I Need A Hero and replaces the word hero with a hair fan which divas, or in this case Varla, demand. The song comes with some great visual gags with wigs and a leaf blower and is a fantastic start for the show.
However, what follows does not reach such a great height of entertainment. Songs on the Hunchback of Notre Dame and jokes about inappropriate children’s book titles are fine but a version of My Favourite Things in an imagined all black version of Sound of Music is a little suspect, both with its delivery and its verging on political incorrectness. A not particularly funny song on foreskin is fitting for the show but is only saved by a helper on stage dressed as a full size male appendage which will always attract a few laughs.
The show does end on a high with a grossly hilarious use of mayonnaise. Apart from the choice of songs that may have lost some poignancy having made their way from America, Varla is an extremely competent performer. Her singing voice is great and her quick wit always lifts the atmosphere whenever there is a dip. This is an enjoyable performance and if the material selection were more apt, it would be a fantastic show.
The second half is the singing string quartet that is Well Strung, a boy band with looks, plus the ability to sing and play in a string quartet. Helpfully, and here comes the audience demographics question, they provide little snippets about themselves between pieces, including growing up gay. The lure of classical music, hunky men on stage and humble offerings from their childhood are a sure way to draw in the crowd. Their music is not all classical. Most of them are string arrangements of pop songs, from Britney Spears to Third Eye Blind.
The arrangement works well in some cases, such as Whitney Houston’s version of I Will Always Love You, but most have a feel that something is missing from the music. Maybe because the music is amplified through speakers which loses some of the purity of a string quartet. And possibly lacking a baseline or a rhythmic track which makes the pop arrangement sound a little thin and shrill. Nonetheless, the classical work is competent and the quartet is best suited for work such as Gardel’s tango Por una Cabeza with their youthful energy. Of the singing voices, Edmund Bagnell has the best, showing off his poppy vocal in a solo of Lady Gaga’s Edge of Glory.
Understandably, their movement is limited by their instruments but the director Donna Drake does her best to make it as interesting as possible. This is a niche market Well Strung is targeting and it does make an interesting evening out. It may attract repeated viewing, but that may be due to more than their musical ability alone.