The self-described "love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine," Varla Jean Merman - the drag performing persona of Jeffery Roberson - more closely resembles a hybrid of Ann-Margret, Joan Sutherland, and Georgia Engels (dithery Georgette on the "Mary Tyler Moore" show). The hard edges of her '60s-style glamour are softened by a palpable if muddle-headed eagerness to please, and her vocal prowess is impressive.
For "Varla Jean Merman Loves a Foreign Tongue," part of the Theater Offensive's Out on the Edge festival, that prowess is put to brilliant use in a pretend-audition with a rap variation on "My Favorite Things" from "The Sound of Music." She nails Julie Andrews's plummy tones while presenting a convincing case that "This bitch got game."
Skewed versions of innocent classics are something of a specialty. Equally dazzling is an encore number adapted from "Dr. Dolittle": "If We Could Talk to the Genitals."
The evening takes the form of a loosely organized travelogue - reminiscences interspliced with songs, slides, and film clips. In fact, the show proper is preceded by a mini-film festival of "Varla Jean Merman's Dirty Shorts," a great way for newbies to familiarize themselves with the oeuvre, even if some of the cleverer vignettes threaten to overshadow the real live deal. And some of the more recent clips incorporated in the show overstep the bounds of dainty raunch that is Varla Jean's stock in trade.
Still, Varla Jean does pledge her intention to live up to the Theater Offensive mandate, and she delivers. It's also difficult not to derive a guilty pleasure from colleague Mark Cortale's Andrea Bocelli impersonation, floridly delivered with his back to the audience: She has to turn him around for their operatic duet of "I Got You, Babe" in Italian.
"I've done so much good-will ambastardizing this year!" gushes Varla Jean. Further travels will no doubt enrich the repertoire, but you might want to catch her sooner rather than later. "Half of our country is officially insane," she sings in a tribute to Canada (her favorite assumed nationality while abroad, lest she be targeted as an ugly American), "so I'm heading to Vancouver if they elect McCain."