Downtown drag legend Joey Arias was feeling energized when I met him inside the historic theater at the Abrons Art Center one steamy day last month. Fans would not leave him alone on the 45 minute walk from his apartment in the Village. Joey, who opens a new version of his acclaimed 2008 show, “Arias With a Twist” this weekend, loved every minute of it.
Inhibited he is not. This is a fact that will no doubt become immediately apparent to anyone in the audience at Abrons Wednesday night (when previews begin). “Eat your heart out, Madonna,” wrote Ben Brantley of the New York Times in his 2008 review of this over-the-top collaboration between Arias and renowned puppeteer Basil Twist. “The chanteuses who play Madison Square Garden and football stadiums have never experienced the imaginative heights of spectacle with which… Twist surrounds Arias,” Brantley proclaimed.
The plan on that sweltering August afternoon was to interview both Arias and Twist, but the puppet master was summoned uptown to deal with a crisis on another one of his projects, the Broadway production of the Addams Family. So Arias and I sat down in the theater where a technical rehearsal was underway, and talked about the upcoming one-month run on Grand Street.
The gender-bending performance artist with a talent for channeling Billie Holiday is no stranger to Abrons. The stately theater was the setting for his sold-out solo show last year. After a great run at a diminutive theater at the HERE Arts Center, Arias is excited to see Basil Twist work his magic in a larger venue. “The whole idea that we’re in this theater, it’s massive,” he said. “It’s like a Cecil B. DeMille production. That already is telling you something. Arias With a Twist has gone deluxe.”
“Arias With a Twist” opens with an alien abduction and ends with a “stupendous Busby Berkeley-esque finale.” Along the way, audience-goers are treated to Joey’s trademark rock, pop and jazz standards and an “eye-popping extravaganza” of “lurid celluloid dreams, macabre nightmares and bizarre premonitions.”
Arias had just returned from six years in Las Vegas as the Mistress of Seduction in Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity when he and Twist created the show. Why did audiences respond so favorably, I asked? “I think people got excited about the show because it was so homemade and so anti-what Broadway is all about,” he said. It’s about “the honesty of being childlike,” he continued; “I wanted to keep it very innocent. I didn’t want to make it deep.” No matter where it’s performed — New York, Los Angeles, France or Sweden — the reaction is the same, Arias said. “People go crazy, they freak out.”
Arias moved to New York in 1976, and became a big part of the 1980’s performance art scene and cultivated a career as a cabaret singer. At Bar d’O in the West Village, he held court for much of the 90’s. How does Arias describe the neighborhood back in the day? “Ghetto, bombed out, nothing going on — Just rats, empty buildings, drug addicts, hookers, murderers and lowlife.” Today Arias does not romaniticize his early years downtown and he does not buy into the theory that the Lower East Side is dead. “It’s all charged up with new shops, new people, restaurants — the culture is fantastic,” he said.
Arias doesn’t seem all that nostalgic about his own past glories, either. “I’m the same age as Madonna,” he told me. “I keep reinventing myself, too.” After the run at Abrons, “I think we’ll be able to take the show to bigger venues.” It’s already headed for Washington, D.C. in the spring. “I think it would blow their minds on Broadway,” he said.
But for the moment, he’s focused on blowing people’s minds on the Lower East Side. “What I love about this show, Arias explained,” is that I can shine through in Basil’s world and also become invisible in it.”
“Arias With a Twist” is at the Abrons Arts Center September 14-October 16. Click here for ticket info.