Joey Arias Pays Tribute to Billie Holliday in Strange Fruit at the Triple Door and Arias’ New Film, Arias With a Twist: The Docufantasy
Joey Arias, Strange Fruit, Triple Door, Seattle, October 12th, 2010
Arias With A Twist: The Docufantasy, Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, October 16th, 2010
By E. Joyce Glasgow
All Photo Credits/Copyrights: E. Joyce Glasgow
Joey Arias is a cause célèbre. How many of us can say that the New York Times has written about our birthday party? Or that we have performed with Cirque du Soleil and David Bowie, or have a new film out that was featured in this year’s Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, or that we’ve traveled around the world, performing in an innovative puppet show?
Event producer and burlesque artist, Paula the Swedish Housewife, presented Joey Arias on October 12th, 2010, at the Triple Door, in Seattle. Arias is a natural jazz singer. Even if he wasn’t deftly encapsulating the aura of the great Billie Holliday in his trademark homage to her, Strange Fruit, he could otherwise very successfully perform in the jazz idiom. His natural musicality, timing, connection to rhythm, emotional interpretations, playfulness and ease of communicating with his audience are delightful qualities.
Arias, who generously performed a two hour show, without intermission, to a wildly enthusiastic, sold out house, was accompanied by an especially fine quartet, with seasoned Seattle locals, Craig Flory, tenor saxophone, Geoff Harper, bass and Denali Williams, drums. His pianist, Elliot Douglass, is a spectacular jazz pianist, whose playing is lush, beautiful, distinctive and ably sets the mood, whether a ballad or swing tune and he knows how to enhance the singer’s performance, supporting full expression. I was blown away by his amazing playing and wondered why I had never heard him before, the reason being that Cirque du Soleil has captured this gem of a musician for one of their Las Vegas shows, where he has been performing, sequestered from all but the lucky Las Vegas audiences, for the past seven years. Arias performed for six years with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas also, as Mistress of Seduction, in their erotic show, Zumanity and only rarely gets to perform with Douglass now, which was our very special treat to hear. Their musical interaction is a joy to listen to. The group performed a nice variety of songs which kept the set rolling along, interspersed with Arias’ wonderful comic remarks and light hearted, sometimes blue and blatantly suggestive banter with audience members. Arias in one moment is an elegant, graceful diva, striding across the stage and then in the next moment, during his stage patter, may be making a sudden, sexually shocking remark, or casually throwing a surprising insult or four letter word at an audience member. But, uncannily, he has such a warm heart and offers up his tossed off, biting, comic remarks with such endearment, that the audience takes it all with laughter and good humor.
Arias wore an incredible, 1950’s style, form fitting woman’s suit, with a short, very synched waist jacket and long pencil skirt, in a burnished, coppery gold brocade that fit like a glove and looked beautiful on him. A friend in New York made it for him and it was patterned after Kim Novak’s dress from Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Vertigo. Throughout his performance, he wore very high, black stiletto heels, with his hair in a braid on top of his head, ultra short bangs and smoldering, dramatic eye make up, blood red lips and black, fingerless gloves. Arias entertained with two outrageous costume changes, first shedding his Kim Novak suit to reveal almost everything, returning to the stage, looking like a benign dominatrix, in a strategic black bra and "landing strip" and a flesh fishnet body suit, with a black corset, strutting comfortably and sexily around the stage. For his last two numbers, he reminded me of Gloria Swanson and appeared very operatic, donned in a floor length, trailing, black flowing coat, with ground length, leopard lined sleeves. Arias playfully wandered through the audience in his fishnet bodysuit and acknowledged and embraced performer friends who were there, including Teatro Zinzanni favorite, El Vez.
Arias channeled iconic, Billie Holliday songs, with a voice that was primarily his own, gravely, husky and expressive, but also with a good dose of Holiday’s special, unique sound in it. He sang Them There Eyes, Don’t Explain, God Bless the Child, Lover Come Back To Me, I Cover the Waterfront, Do Right, Easy Living, All of Me, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone, as well as The Look of Love. Elliot Douglass' superb musicianship was showcased in a beautiful, solo performance of I Hear Music, on the piano. Arias and Douglass did a powerful and sobering duo version of Holliday’s, Strange Fruit, written by her, in response to the horror of the lynching of African-Americans. Arias prefaced the song by commenting (I paraphrase) that he felt the song also applies to Gay Rights and that all people should be able to live and be who they are without fear. He closed out the set with an encore of his own lively, original song, What a Feeling.
A few days later, on October 16th, Arias’ new film, Arias With a Twist: The Docufantasy, was shown as part of the 15th Annual Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, at the Egyptian Theatre, with Arias and the director, Bobby Sheehan, in attendance to answer questions afterwards. This film is a look into Arias’ history in the New York performance art world culminating in his recent collaborative puppet show with Basil Twist, a third generation puppeteer working in New York, who is also one of the best and most innovative puppeteers on the planet. I saw their live show, Arias With a Twist, in its original production, at the Here Arts Center, in New York City and it was charming, inventive, whimsical, funny and wonderfully creative. It has been traveling around the world and in the film we see some performance scenes, rehearsals and backstage preparations, as well as comments from Arias and Twist. Arias is hoping to bring it to Seattle and if it does come here, I highly recommend going to see it. It is fantastic! The docufantasy also enlightened me to parts of Joey Arias’ history that I knew little about. There are a number of wonderful interviews with long time Arias’ associates in the theatre, art, fashion, and performance worlds, who all came together to contribute to a very fertile, intensely creative, colorful, outrageous, underground performance art scene in a period of New York history, along with footage of his performances with David Bowie and others. The film addresses the devastating effects of the original AIDS epidemic on the arts and performance worlds of New York City, when Arias was forced to face the trauma of loosing his lover and many of his close friends, including Klaus Nomi and Keith Haring, to AIDS, many dying within a matter of months, weeks, or days.
Joey Arias is an incredible artist, a talented individual and a real showman. He has a big heart and a great generosity of spirit. He clearly loves people and what he does, embracing his audiences and warmly giving of himself one hundred and fifty percent.
To learn more about Joey Arias visit www.joeyarias.com. To see the upcoming schedule at the Triple Door visit www.thetripledoor.net. To find out about Paula the Swedish Housewife’s upcoming productions visit www.swedishhousewife.com. For information on the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival visit www.threedollarbillcinema.org. For information on puppeteer, Basil Twist visit www.basiltwist.com. For information on upcoming performances at the Here Arts Center in New York City, visit www.here.org.