No stage performer works harder to please, tease, transcend, and convert than Taylor Mac. (And that includes you, Mr. Springsteen.)
Also answering to the gender pronoun “judy” (as an homage to role model Judy Garland), Mac is the commanding singer, comic/caustic narrator, cross-dressing work of art, sexual libertine, and all-around agent-provocateur driving the massive, mind-boggling A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
As much a performance art “happening” as it is a concert, maybe 15 percent improvised, this history lesson spanning 240 years has come to roost as centerpiece of the 2018 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.
The first of the show’s two installments (each surveying 12 decades) kept the artist on stage and roaming around the Merriam Theater auditorium for 11-plus hours on Saturday, starting at the crack of noon, with noble support from a huge backup band, surprise guests, and almost two dozen “Dandy Minion” assistants who are part of the show’s crew.
Disappointingly, the 1,800-seat theater was only about two-thirds full for the bravura performance. Price may have been off-putting for the costliest, $300 seats; they let the people from the cheap seats come forward about 10 minutes in.
The second part (tickets still available) brings back many of the crew (and other guests) next Saturday, though the initial 24-person orchestra was and will continue to be reduced by one player per hour, some exiting with a cute sendoff.
As judy carries on all the narrative duties and about 90 percent of the vocal chores (on 100 plus songs), races around, and submits to a dozen glam-slam costume changes fashioned by conceptual artist Machine Dazzle, it’s a wonder that the voice, wit, and stamina holds up under the weight.
>> READ MORE: Taylor Mac talks about bringing the production to life
Only one “gotta-pee” break was ever acknowledged (audience members are urged to come and go at will, with Jose Garces food and drink service available in the lobby.) It wasn’t until Saturday’s final hour that judy confessed to musical director Matt Ray, “I don’t know what comes next.”
Boasting many rabble-rousing, agit-pop hits of yore — think Colonial fave “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the abolitionist-coded “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” and the Civil War-era “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” — this American music marathon is more than mere entertainment.
It’s also a pointed reflection on our country’s sad and enduring practice of playing class favorites (especially “white male capitalists,” judy pronounced) while putting the thumb down on so many others — repressing women, racial and ethnic minorities, and gender-benders.
In TM’s trajectory from dive bar drag performer (the artist last played here 16 years ago) to international arts center darling, judy still clings to a “radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice” agenda that rallies the LGBTQ+ base while also hoping to lure in sympathetic straights and the liberal-leaning arts funders who keep this big enterprise afloat.
Ultimately, judy said during the performance, the show’s goal is to eliminate distinctions, unify all peoples “to build ourselves,” not walls, in a time “when we are being torn apart.”
In this mash-up of ambitions, not everybody’s going to get or like everything this show or personality does. Energizing viewers for the long haul, the first three hours of 1776-1806 stories and song on the Revolutionary War, women’s lib, and drinking songs proved pretty much perfect, with members of Opera Philadelphia comically serving as a temperance movement choir in the third chunk. (And the complimentary round of beers for all didn’t hurt.)
An imagined 1846-circa “WWF-style smackdown” between rival “Father of American Song” Stephen Foster and Camden poet laureate Walt Whitman underscored the genius of the latter as judy/Mac turned up the dramatic oratory, underscored their gay kinship, and made Whitman’s passionate imagery hum even without tunes.
And Foster’s claimed abolitionist nature sure seemed a weak liberal ruse, given all that musical romanticizing of the Good Old South in “Camptown Races” and “Massa’s in de Cold Ground.”
Likewise powerful were adjacent segments themed on the Underground Railroad (dramatized by Brooklyn’s Urban Bush Women dance ensemble) and an interesting take on the War of 1812 suffering of blinded soldiers. For this part of the performance art happening, judy pressed the entire audience to put on blindfolds and feel their way around in the dark.
But other aspects of the three-decade (1806-36), three-hour long passage on immigration, humanism, and the Indian Removal Act – structured for barely comic relief with a “hetero-normative musical” plot line narrative – proved convoluted and tedious.
And a bizarre 40-minute restating of the mid-1800s operetta The Mikado that moved the setting from Japan to Mars with Auto-Tuned “take me to your leader” gurgly voices and Day-Glo decor left me totally cold. (Others howled, especially for “Tit Willow.”)
I also kept pondering, albeit with bemusement, what those “under the radar” arts supporters (whom Taylor Mac mocked) and the oldest couples in the house felt about the bold sex talk and recurring flashes of nudity – as the artist repeatedly stripped down to a flower-pouf jock strap to shift from one magnificently daffy Mummers-on-acid-style costume to another. (A hoop skirt decorated with shrunken male heads – as judy evoked the repressed status of late 1700s women – was really a killer.)
Even more in our face, his big crew of scantily clad Minions wiggled bare-arsed up and down the aisles, serving the audience complimentary food and drinks and participatory props (ping-pong balls and popcorn) to throw at one another in mock combat.
Most nihilistic/insane, near the show’s end, was a gay burlesque character miming a “coy” striptease, though he was already in the altogether (nude.) I couldn’t stop laughing.
The key difference between a typical concert and a performance art concert, noted the show’s creator, is that a concert is structured to make every song a perfect connecting moment between talent and listener. In a performance art happening, it’s the process of art-making that’s the star, rather than the artist.
And if you don’t like parts or any of it, that’s OK. The confrontational work “still succeeds” as a process fulfilled.
Ultimately, it’s those enduring songs we remember well from campfire sings and elementary school music classes — and, perhaps, the coffeehouse “hoots” of our youth — that bring the audience together in the marathon of A 24-Decade of Popular Music. Songs like “Oh Susanna,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “Shenandoah,” and the eternal “Now I Know My A-B-C’s.”
These are songs we mostly characterize as “folk ballads,” though in the pre-electric decades of their birth, they were the popular music of the day. And this material has been stylishly dressed up for current consumption by talented musical director Ray with tasty jazz, blues, reggae, string band, and pop chanteuse arrangements, supporting the powerhouse vocals of the show’s star and female sidekicks.
Taylor Mac sings with a multiplicity of voices to fit the occasion and Lady Gaga-on-steroids garb: a haunting “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” with the languid longing of an Adele, a show-stopping finale of “After the Ball” with the brassy coloration, range, and vibrato of a Bette Midler or a Judy Garland.
Time and again, the show’s carefully curated tunes reflect how this music came to be popular. That is, by functioning as an object lesson to learn from, as a rallying cry and connective tissue to bring people together and lift us up, to give comfort and sometimes inflict revenge.
The beat goes on again Saturday, moving forward in time with American musical hits and social history lessons from 1896 to today.
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music
Taylor Mac's drag revue of American history as told through popular song concludes in a second marathon installment starting Saturday at noon, Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $45-$300. Information: 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org