The Bearded Ladies are five women and two men. They sing - very well - and they wear bizarre costumes. Their new show, Wide Awake: A Civil War Cabaret, at the Wilma Theater this weekend and again Dec. 2 and 3, is wildly entertaining, even if it still needs some kinks worked out.
Medley is the name of their complicated, charming, entertaining game: old and new, historical and contemporary, male and female, funny and moving, parody and pointed, if implicit, social commentary. This is the American Songbook in snippets, glimpses, segues, shifts, and slides. Old songs from the Old South ("Swanee," "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny"), new songs about the South ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Sweet Home Alabama"), and songs from the North ("John Brown's Body," "Come Together"). The program lists 33 songs.
The star Bearded Lady is clean-shaven; in a spectacular, enormous antebellum gown, John Jarboe plays Dixie, who proves, on stilts, that the South's gonna rise again. He has a delicious manner and a wonderful tremolo, and is, incarnate, the appeal of the Gone With the Wind myth America has succumbed to (just listen to the accents of the Republic candidates as they court us in the Tara of their minds). He is also the fact of the fakeness of all that, being a guy in drag. Dixie/Jarboe reminds us that America has "traded freedom for magnolia blossoms and soft breathable fibers," good cotton being so hard to get these days, even in the land of.
The Bearded Ladies who are actually ladies are Liz Filios (who sings a gorgeous song with lyrics by Walt Whitman, warning Dixie that "your ass is leaves of grass"); Jessica Hurley; Rebecca Kanach; Mary Tuomanen; and the outstanding Kristen Bailey. They represent the North in huge Lincoln top hats, corsets, britches, mustaches, and boots. Heath Allen is the stalwart pianist and the show's musical director, and EJ Simpson guests on drums.
The venue isn't so comfy, sightlines are poor, and there are moments in what seems like a work in progress that don't work, like the dividing of the audience with a rope. But mostly the Bearded Ladies provide a merry hour of song and fun - as well as a glass of a concoction called Dixie's Downfall.
The Bearded Ladies
Wilma Theater lobby, Broad and Spruce Streets, Nov.19, and Dec. 2-3 at 10:30 p.m. Tickets: $20. Information: 215-546-7824.
Follow Toby Zinman on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.