Meow Meow Wows at ArtsEmerson (4.5 Stars)

‘An Audience With Meow Meow’ – Created and Performed by Meow Meow (with additional writing by Maria Dahvana Headley); Directed by Leigh Silverman; Choreography by Sonya Tayeh; Musical Supervision by Lance Horne; Scenic/Costume Designs by Andrea Lauer; Lighting/Projection by Alexander V. Nichols; Sound Design by Rob Kaplowitz; Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St, Boston through October 24th.

There are two ways to take the full title for ArtsEmerson’s latest presentation, “An Audience With Meow Meow” – and either one would be appropriate. The first (and most logical choice) is that we as an audience are going to have the rare privilege of being in the presence of someone very special – like a much more fun (and sexier) visit with the Pope. And that description is absolutely true. Meow Meow – aka Melissa Madden Gray – is a rare talent. Part Joan Collins, part Liza Minelli, with a healthy dose of Lucille Ball thrown in, Meow Meow defies description. But the second interpretation of the show’s title may be a little more accurate, as the audience plays nearly as big a part in this show as Ms. Meow herself.

From the very opening  of the production, the audience is actively engaged – dragging a trunk full of props to the stage for the diva, helping her get dressed for her performance, and throwing flowers (which she supplied) onto the stage – all before she has sung an entire song. The audience participation continues right through to the end, when she literally crowdsurfs from the stage through to the back of the orchestra seating – a full 12 rows – and back again. And in true diva fashion, she treats her new found help with all the respect that JPMorgan’s Jamie Diamond would a shoeshine boy – and they love it. The device is certainly different and often hilarious, but the show really takes off when Meow Meow performs for instead of with the audience, because her talents really are mind-blowing.

We first get an unfiltered blast of that luminosity when she delivers a short medley of Bertolt Brecht tunes (complete with a hand held smoke machine for cabaret effect) and renders the audience utterly spellbound. The show is not like anything you’re likely to see elsewhere, as the self-described “Queen of Kamikaze Cabaret” also does an unscripted (and very funny) Q & A with the audience; a bizarre version of Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” (complete with a can-can line of – you guessed it – audience members) and a touching version of Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” with Boston Conservatory alum and Broadway talent Nikka Graff Lanzarone, who appears as Meow Meow’s “taller, thinner, and younger” version in a “dreaded”(in Meow Meow’s estimation) dream sequence.

As amazing as a performer as Meow Meow is, I couldn’t help feeling a little cheated at times. The audience participation was fun at first, but after watching her blow away the audience with her full arsenal of talents (she’s a great comedienne as well), I wanted more of her, and maybe with a little less of the tongue so firmly planted in her heavily rouged cheek. In some respects, Meow Meow reminds me artistically of Frank Zappa, who despite his own musical gifts, wrapped many of his compositions in comedy, so as not to take himself too seriously, I guess. In fact, in a piece that ran in The Australian in 2008, long before she developed this show, Meow Meow told the interviewer, “When I first went to New York I saw a lot of art and avant-garde theatre, and it was all so precious. I thought, how could I justify being a performer if all I’m seeing is acts of self-delusion? I live in terror of being self-indulgent. That’s why I love comedy.” But like Zappa, her immense talent shines through it all.

Still, based on the audience reaction, I am clearly not speaking for the majority with this minor quibble. Whether she was doing comedy routines by using audience members as furniture, tossing off devastating one-liners or belting out a song, she had the audience eating out of her hand. This is really a terrific show, and with only two weekends remaining, you’d better get your tickets soon. For more info, go to: