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Cross-dresser's cabaret show winks at the circus

| Sunday, June 6, 2004

Actor Jeffery Roberson claims a rare distinction.

His performance in the film "Girls Will Be Girls" earned him both an award for best actor from the 2003 Outfest Film Festival and the award for best actress from the Aspen HBO Film Festival.

A stage, television and film performer, Roberson is most widely known for his drag roles as Rosemary Chicken on ABC's daytime drama "All My Children" and as Mary Sunshine in the Broadway and national touring production of "Chicago." A native of New Orleans, Roberson began his "Chicago" run with the touring company here at the Benedum Center. "It's the only Mardi Gras I ever missed in my life, but I didn't mind," he says.

This past winter, he appeared in both male and female roles in Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep" at Hartford Stage.

But he has earned himself something of a cult following for appearances as Varla Jean Merman in a series of cabaret performances -- such as "The Very Worst of Varla Jean," "Varla Jean Merman Is All Washed Up" and "Varla Jean Merman's Holiday Ham" -- that have played venues such as Joe's Pub at the New York Public Theater, the Soho Theatre in London and the Renberg Theater in Los Angeles.

The rumored love-child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine, Varla Jean is a big-boned, red-tressed gal who -- according to New York Magazine -- can belt like Shirley Bassey and hit notes like Kathleen Battle.

On Tuesday, Robeson brings Varla Jean in all her big-haired and sequined splendor to City Theatre with "Varla Jean Merman's Under a Big Top."

"It's Varla Jean's take on the seedy underbelly of the circus," Roberson says. The 75-minute show features songs, puns, send-ups, ventriloquism, video, yodeling, magic tricks and a hot dog puppet named Frank. Processed cheese products are consumed. The show is packed with sly humor and double entendres that Varla Jean delivers unwittingly, says Roberson, explaining: "Varla Jean is so naive. It's like a gay friend has written the material and played a joke on her."

A trapeze may or may not carry Varla Jean out over the audience, depending on how the theater is configured. "Let's hope they have insurance," Roberson says. "In L.A., I did swing out over the audience. It's very satisfying to see the fear."

Musical numbers are an eclectic mix of genres and styles that include Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," which is dedicated to the Bearded Lady; Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," sung to a video of Varla's weight gains; and an operatic medley of Georges Bizet's "Habanera" and Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves." There's also some original songs co-written by Roberson and former Pittsburgher David Brunetti. His accompanist, Ricky Ritzel, also hails from here.

Roberson calls "Varla Jean Merman's Under A Big Top" his crossover show. "Oddly enough, though there are a lot of gay jokes, it attracts a mixed crowd and different ages," he says.

He has memories of mimicking Maria Callas recordings as a child. It was an odd choice, he says, because "My parents were Dolly Parton fans."

He began fooling around with drag in New Orleans, first at parties, then later at home before appearing in a series of videos that played in local bars. Those videos made their way to New York City before he moved there to take a job as an art director at an ad agency.

But it wasn't until after he finished his tour with "Chicago" that he started seriously pursuing a career as a cabaret performer. "I didn't want to go back to work (in advertising)," he says.

His solo-performer show "Enough About Me: An Unauthorized Autobiography" ran off-Broadway for five months and in San Francisco in 2000 and '01 before he developed Varla Jean. "I'd done so many autobiographical shows," he says. "You can only do your parents so many times." Additional Information:

Details

'Varla Jean Merman's Under a Big Top'

Presented by : City Theatre

When : Opens June 8 and runs through June 19 at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 10:30 p.m. Saturdays

Admission : $25

Where : City Theatre, Bingham at South 13th Street, South Side

Details : (412) 431-CITY or www.citytheatrecompany.org

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