Subtitled “A Musical Mr. Rogers Healing Ritual for Adults,” John Jarboe’s drag cabaret titled You Can Never Go Down the Drain is an attempt to rescue himself and his audience from snark and despair. Using as his platform Mr. Rogers, the beloved icon of children’s television, a man who embodied earnestness, Jarboe sings some of the famous songs, feeds the fish in the aquarium, and changes into sneakers — albeit high-heeled ones — for the occasion.
Using a wheeled clothing rack instead of a closet (since, as he notes, closets can be triggers), his costumes are attempts to cheer himself up: an owl, a fish, a panda, as well as Elvis, a glamour gown, and tight turquoise pants. But no matter how earnestly he tries, irony and cynicism and sadness at the state of the world today overwhelm the hope he is trying so hard — too hard — to regain.
I freely declare I have been a Jarboe fan for years, ditto the Bearded Ladies (whose stalwart Heath Allen is once again at the keyboard). Jarboe has a gorgeous singing voice — a voice too little in evidence in this mostly talky, often silly show as he climbs over audience seats, passes vodka around, talks about “fisting” and licks cake icing off boots. He is a terrifically talented actor, with a subtle face that can reveal intelligence and charm, so it is an unhappy surprise to find him here in a broad, vulgar mode, with amateurish attempts to engage the audience in various embarrassing interactions. Sexualizing Mr. Rogers’s songs such as “I Like to be Told,” “I Like to Take My Time,” and “Many Ways to Say I Love You” with lewd winkings seems, to use an old-fashioned, indeed earnest word, disrespectful.
The show’s concept has great potential, but nothing coalesces. Especially random is the foray into ecological disaster in the Pacific ocean. Mr Rogers’ most famous song,“Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” is, at this particular moment in the world’s tragic drama, painfully relevant, but this relevance never emerges in the show.
Director Suli Holum does not exert much control over this meandering, self-indulgent script. Jarboe dips into autobiography, lamenting his lost innocence, moving himself nearly to tears with an old photograph and a stuffed animal, as though he has only just discovered that he has grown up. When Jarboe says to us, in what may be an unscripted aside, ”I feel this show’s a mess,” he’s right.
The Bearded Ladies Present: You Can Never Go Down the Drain
Through July 1 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street. Tickets: $15-40. Information: 215-546-7824, wilmatheater.org.