While attending college down in New Orleans back in the '80s, Jeffery Roberson decided to major in drag. Following the advice of Gypsy's band of strippers, who claimed "You gotta have a gimmick," he fashioned Varla Jean Merman -- the so-called love child of Ethel Merman herself and Ernest Borgnine -- and wrote I've Got the Music in Me! to showcase his creation.
Lounging on a Victorian settee on the Cleveland Public Theatre stage, Varla is a blur of lush titian hair and showgirl pout. Oddly, there's not a trace of the fierce Merman brass or Borgnine bluster. Rather, Roberson's alter ego -- decked out in a plethora of sparkly bargain-basement Bob Mackey peekaboo gowns -- seems more a hybrid of Ann-Margret, during her "kitten with a whip" phase, and Paul Lynde, the persnickety middle square.
Over the next 75 minutes, adeptly controlled by director Michael Schiralli, the self-proclaimed "international chanteuse" plays Swiss bells and warbles bawdy song parodies ("Why Can't the Rappers Teach Their Children How to Speak?") in the overprecise coloratura of a children's show hostess. At one point, she performs an explicit duet with a yodeling kosher wiener puppet.
In the great drag queen tradition, from Divine to Dame Edna, Roberson's mission is to turn gender clichés on their head while attacking bourgeois notions of good taste. But unlike Divine, who specialized in shock for shock's sake, Varla has a bag of tricks -- musical, sartorial, and so on -- to rival any other would-be diva.
Like dames of either gender who yearn to be gaudier than life, Varla's persona is all about unbridled narcissism. Warning the audience she's "too self-absorbed to pretend to be anyone else" (even if she does sneak in a few Enya-esque trills), Varla revels in sharing her not-so-everyday experiences. We witness her embarrassment upon having to deliver a human heart in a McDonald's bag during the course of her day job as an organ courier. She also dedicates a song of filial devotion to her runaway illegitimate daughter.
What makes her egotism so genial is that it's as ostentatiously synthetic as her boobs. She floats through her own zebra-striped, ultra-lounge universe, far too detached from fleshy reality to elicit any genuine vulgarity or coarseness. (It's always slightly embarrassing to encounter a drag show wholesome enough to bring one's heterosexual relatives to see.)
While bidding the audience adieu, Varla ruefully admits she doubts she will remember any of us in days to come. The melancholy fact is that, in spite of her superlative efforts, the feeling is mutual. With little bite and less spine, she's just too much of a lady to burn her way into our psyches. The cumulative effect of I've Got the Music in Me! is entirely amorphous and ephemeral. Like a lava lamp, it gives off a pleasing aura but no lasting illumination.