Give him 24 hours and Taylor Mac could change your life. Or at the least, alter your perceptions of the collective history we’ve shared as Americans, as reflected by the popular music ingrained in our culture.
After concluding the arduous journey with Saturday’s second, 12-hour stanza of Mac’s A 24 Decade History of Popular Music (the centerpiece of the 2018 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts), this marathon runner felt both invigorated and bone-weary, stuffed to the gills with factoids, opinions, and music hits from bygone eras.
All were colored through the lens of a cross-dressing, vocally chameleonlike and brashly funny performance artist (known also to his friends as gender pronoun “judy”) whose mission is to connect the dots of oppression isolating gender, race, and ethnic minority groups. This “radical faerie” is especially interested in the cause of LGBTQ rights and recognition – the outed community that first engaged the artist’s self-awareness as a sexually repressed California teen in the late 1980s. And a coterie that still constitutes about 70 percent of Taylor Mac’s following.
So, yeah, the performance artist was mostly preaching to the choir that almost filled the 1,800 seat Merriam Theater on Saturday, a better crowd than the week before. Maybe because this 100-tune chunk of hit parade – spanning 1897 to the present – is more relatable, nodding to pop gender-benders David Bowie (“Heroes”), Elton John (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), and Prince (“Purple Rain”), to gay icon Judy Garland (“The Trolley Song”), and showtune masters Rodgers and Hammerstein (honored with judy’s tour-de-force “Solilogy” from the back-on-Broadway Carousel.)
Spotlighted most tellingly were social change champions like Nina Simone (”Mississippi Goddam“) and Patti Smith (“Birdland”), both of whom purposefully sang off-key, argued judy, because their messages were sour. Plus fellow travelers like 1963 March on Washington participant Bob Dylan (“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,”), Bruce Springsteen (“Born to Run”), and the Rolling Stones (“Gimme Shelter.”)
Later, the dark AIDS crisis and Radical Lesbian decades from 1986-2006 evoked Suzanne Vega’s “Blood Makes Noise,” Mykki Blanco’s “I Want a Dyke for President,” and Bitch & Animal’s “Pussy Manifesto.” A welcome energy boost came with the eleventh-hour visit of Toshi Reagon, one of many lesbian folk notables (as she name-checked) who’ve pushed the movement forward.
Finally, the artist swan-songed with an eight-pack of piano-banjo-ukulele strummed solos, Mac originals that wistfully pondered all that had come before.
As the artist warned repeatedly, it was almost impossible for any one person to like all parts of this confrontational performance exercise.
I could have done without the recasting of Pete Seeger’s (and the Book of Ecclesiastes’) “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as a brassy, danger-lurking variation on “Theme from ‘Peter Gunn.’ ”
And this picky music purist has to point out the occasional time warping of material to fit a theme. Though slotted in the 1920-’30s Harlem Renaissance era, E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen’s wry rant on historical co-optation (!) “Napoleon” actually debuted on this self-same Merriam stage (then called the Shubert) in 1957, sung by Lena Horne in the Broadway-bound musical Jamaica.
But most selections and settings by musical conductor/arranger Matt Ray were spot-on. So, too, the players/singers who helped pull them off, like cool school jazz trumpeter Greg Glassman, guitar virtuoso Viva DeConcini, soul sistas Thornetta Davis and Stephanie Christi’an, and special-for-Philly guest vocalist Martha Graham Cracker (aka Dito Van Reigersberg). These “gals” pulled out the sexy, funniest best in the show’s double-entendre blues tunes and nudged judy to surprisingly soulful singing of her own.
Audience engagement stunts likewise ran hot and cold for me. Some were cute and telling, like the star’s conducting the audience as an 1890s New York Jewish “tenement sounds” choir.
“Years” later, judy persuaded everyone to choose a same-sex partner and slow dance to a toned-down version of Ted Nugent’s “Snakeskin Cowboy” to exorcise the gay bashing venom in its heart. Sweet.
Marching out the Camden Sophisticated Sisters and Distinguished Brothers Drill Team was likewise an effective crowd rouser as a brown bag dinner was being served to all.
But other stunts grew old; faster because I’d also seen and heard them done the week before in the first 12-hour stint. The boy-on-boy grinding and oral sex jokes judy mimed had shock value to start but seemed so-what on replays. Maybe that was the point. Get used to it, people?
I also wearied of dividing the audience into “us versus them” rivals and dragging bunches up on stage to serve as witnesses and comic foils for as long as an hour. But the subjects (some “plants”) were almost all good sports about it. I served stage time in Part 1 as a “dead” Stephen Foster. The reviews were awesome.
Showgoers also got their money’s worth ($45 to $300 a ticket) in production gloss, with costume designer Machine Dazzle’s ever amusing outfitting of the nearly two dozen Dandy Minions show sidekicks and most especially the star. Dazzle (né Matthew Flower) dressed Mac/judy in a winged plane suit for war combat, a fetching white picket fence frock to evoke 1946-56 “white flight” to the ‘burbs, and, in a pillbox-hat-topped pink, white, and blue outfit to remember Jackie Kennedy as endorser of the 1956-66 Freedom Marchers era.
Excellent lighting (John Torres) and scenic effects (Mimi Lien) — including an amazing underwater “Sleepy Lagoon” fantasy and a goofy war of giant U.S. vs. Russian sex toys — likewise made this a PIFA event that people will be dreaming about and hopefully acting on for decades more.