Review: Meow Meow at Berkeley Rep a joyously powerful production

Melissa Madden Gray, who goes by her stage name Meow Meow soars with the help of her dancers Michael Balderrama, left and Bob Gaynor in "An Audience with Meow Meow" at Berkeley Rep. (Photo by Kevinberne.com)
Melissa Madden Gray, who goes by her stage name Meow Meow soars with the help of her dancers Michael Balderrama, left and Bob Gaynor in “An Audience with Meow Meow” at Berkeley Rep. (Photo by Kevinberne.com)

In the opening moments of the world premiere of “An Audience with Meow Meow,” running through Oct. 19th at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a tone is set. Or so I thought.

It was very clear that this voluptuous woman is a performer of the highest order. Golden-throated, limber as can be, with a commanding stage presence, Meow Meow graced the stage with a disarming joy, doling out laugh after laugh driven by athletic pratfalls and uncanny grace.

But what I didn’t grasp right away was the fact that an evening with this woman was also going to be so powerfully poignant, equal parts joy and pain. Action is frenetic, and does some solid stopping and starting led by director Emma Rice.

Melissa Madden Gray, also known as the sultry chanteuse Meow Meow, spent 90-plus minutes pouncing all over the stage, finding plenty of hands in the audience to pounce all over her. From the moment the curtain rises, she certainly wasted no time flying, stretching, and splitting all over the Roda Theatre stage. Certainly, not every time she came crashing down with her dancing partners in crime (Michael Balderrama and Bob Gaynor) was filled with unmitigated hilarity – plenty of them were a bit overdone and lost their effect. But even though the physical humor of the piece may have had mixed results, what is clear as day is this woman’s booming talent that highlights the cabaret performer at the height of the art form’s popularity.

The gags with the willing audience members were quite funny. Because she had lost her dancers due to some unforeseen circumstances, people who were sitting and facing the stage were called to fill in as rotating stage-turners and leg-strokers. You know, some critically important jobs in the world of showbiz. And yet, while the hilarity of these impromptu moments rolled along merrily, what couldn’t be more deadly serious is Gray’s gargantuan talent. Her voice is a marvel – big and bold while belting a torch song in moments, finding a delicate balance of seriousness and humor.

The story of this woman and the disastrous show she is putting on, a show that challenges the constraints of commercial theatre (She’s looking at you, Wicked), gets her into some trouble. And  while her union techies take a hike, the show takes a more serious tone as the second half of the show approaches.

That poignant work takes place when the union shuts the show down, firing all of the delightfully awesome 4-piece band. This leaves Meow Meow in the dark, literally and figuratively. These are the moments where she begins to feel her aloneness. Luckily for us, she has her Mother Courage of the stage emergency chest, full of trinkets which help bring about more light as she searches for a connection in the dark.

It was in these moments that audience begins to truly grasp what the show is really about. This show was not about pratfalls, the secret sips of wine that helped the pills go down, and the ridiculous nature of leggings and false boobies. This show is about an audience that isn’t simply witnessing Meow Meow. It was an audience that was with Meow Meow. And at moments the audience was called to duty.

One particular moment, that audience was hella called into duty. I don’t want to reveal exactly what that moment is, because it’s magical to experience. The only thing I can say is make sure you’re not holding your program or cell phone, as I was.

It is not often when such a performer puts so much passion and trust in her audience. But what matters most is the audience and Meow Meow were together as a single entity. We shared the space, breathed the same air, soared together and shared tears together.

I have had many, many nights watching shows in the theatre, many of those at both spaces that Berkeley Rep houses. And I am not often befuddled when having to pen a review of the many shows I see. This show was different. Describing this show has been somewhat difficult.

And honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “An Audience with Meow Meow”
Starring Melissa Madden Gray as cabaret performer “Meow Meow”
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice
90 minutes, no intermission
The Word: A big booming performer who presents a show equal parts funny and powerful.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
The Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA 94704
Tickets range from $29 – $89
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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