Varla Jean Merman: Wonder Merman

Varla Jean Merman

Wonder Merman

The Green Room 42, NYC, 5/4/18

Reviewed by Randolph B. Eigenbrode for Cabaret Scenes

Varla Jean Merman

Comedy is all about timing and Varla Jean Merman has it down pat.

The alter-ego of Jeffery Roberson, Merman has been honing her combination of cabaret, comedy, and camp for 25 years—and it shows. This isn’t amateur drag night, even if the jokes don’t always land. But, as Charles Pierce once said: “They can’t all be zingers.”

In this showing Merman playfully celebrates “heroine”—the first of a string of tongue-in-cheek word play that Roberson expertly negotiates without underlining. And, by paying homage to his favorite “outspoken, brave, and empowered” female role models, Merman simultaneously creates the opportunity to skewer them.


She’s nice; she’s naughty. But there is always love.

There’s the absurd four-and-a-half-minute portrayal of Gone with the Wind—entitled “Gone with the Breaking Wind,” the risqué tribute to Josephine Baker involving a banana skirt, and a high-spirited prance to Chic’s “Le Freak” (Bernard Edwards/Nile Rogers). There’s also a video screen that, while she sang “Can You Read My Mind” (John Williams/Leslie Bricusse), revealed Merman’s self-absorbed inner subtext.

The show moves at a breakneck speed. Merman works the crowd in her Bob Mackie-like ensembles, and then dashes to the wings for speedy costume changes while the audience watches vintage Varla video shorts. It’s like aerobics, YouTube, and The Cher Show all rolled into one.

There are flatulence jokes and some irreverent (perhaps slightly un-PC) humor, but Merman is inexplicably attuned to the comedy dynamic of her crowd: almost exclusively 40-and-up gay men with disposable income. And cheer her on they do, especially following a particularly tour-de-force reenactment of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame set to the tune of “Ring Them Bells” (John Kander/Fred Ebb).

Her vocal attack is a falsetto-y mix with Streisand-esque fall-offs peppered with a humorous yodel that Roberson employs as he negotiates that passagio crossing. Indeed, Merman sings although never in a pyrotechnic sense that you might expect from a drag performer. 

Yet, some of that vocal prowess might have put over a bizarre and clunky medley of Dreamgirls songs sung by a trio of sassy cows (The “Creamgirls”), and Merman’s adorable MD Gerald Goode. But, like a pro, Merman unapologetically moves on with nothing but a simple quip.

“You’ll never see that anywhere else….ever again.”

Fiercely funny after all these years, Merman’s show is rife with social commentary even if downplayed with one-liner throw-aways. But like a true artist, Roberson makes sure his audience gets its fill of chuckles and chortles before the bait-and-switch can kick in. And, to top it all off, he looks fabulous while doing it.  

Not bad for an old broad.           

Randolph B. Eigenbrode

Randolph is the newest addition to the writing staff at Cabaret Scenes. He is a cabaret teacher, previously teaching with legend Erv Raible, and his students have gone on to success in the field with sold-out shows and many awards. He is also a director and that, combined with a knowledge of the art form and techniques that cabaret performing encompasses, makes him love reviewing NYC’s cabaret scene. When not catching the Big Apple’s crazy talent, Randolph loves 1970s variety shows, mall Chinese food, Meryl Streep films and a good cold glass of pinot grigio.