I arrange a lot of phone calls with musicians. Sometimes it’s easier than others — I need to reschedule, they need to reschedule, or someone oversleeps and misses the appointment entirely. The latter was the case with Australian neo-cabaret performer Melissa Madden Gray, who performs as Meow Meow.
In March, Meow Meow, along with Thomas Lauderdale, bandleader with Portland jazz, lounge and pop-classical revivalists Pink Martini, released Hotel Amour. The album is a collection of jazz, lounge, chanson and torch songs, with originals and classics from the French, German and Shanghainese canon.
On the album, Meow Meow duets with Rufus Wainwright in the rambunctiously celebratory big band jazz number “À quoi ça sert l’amour.” Elsewhere she sings in a lusty Dietrich-style alto on “Bonjour Tristesse,” a standard popularized by Juliette Greco, “I live with melancholy. My friend is vague distress.”
Shortly after missing our prearranged phone call (picture the moment, if you will, in black and white — it would be appropriate) this email showed up in my inbox, subject line: “Diva is brilliant and yet an IDIOT!” She set her alarm for pm rather than am, it seems.
I never did connect with Meow Meow over the phone. I bring this up only because that email response is just so Meow Meow, a self-described “post-post-modern diva,” who performs kamikaze cabaret, a genre of alt-cabaret popular in London and, increasingly, New York.
Meow Meow has taken her show all over the world, performing at New York’s Lincoln Center, Berlin’s Bar Jeder Vernunft, London’s West End and the Sydney Opera House.
Kamikaze cabaret explores areas between parody and tribute, turning up the drama on already high-drama classic cabaret with added bawdiness, danger and tragicomedy. You get a warts ‘n’ all sense the performer herself barely made it to the stage, and that once there, you can’t be quite sure what she’ll do next — cry, tell a dirty joke or captivate with song.
Performing with Pink Martini last spring in a somewhat less glamorous venue, Salem’s Elsinore Theatre, wearing a glittering ball gown and a leopard print coat, Meow Meow called up two men from the audience. Her hair was an inky black scribble of a Betty Boop bob. Her eyes and expression enthralled to her own spotlight.
“Stop chasing me!” she flirted as the men followed her to the stage, followed up with “Schnell!” a cartoon version of German efficiency. The men formed a throne of sorts with their bodies, from which Meow Meow delivered a perfect rendition of Jacques Brel’s classic “Ne me quitte pas.”
Because, of course, for any of this to truly work, the star of the show, in the end, must always be brilliant.
Looking back, I’m not sure whether Gray ever intended to take my phone call. I don’t accuse her of missing it on purpose. The fact she did, though, coupled with her perfect apology email is so in keeping with the airtight character of Meow Meow, I like to think it was all just part of the act and that, for just a short time, I was in on it.
Meow Meow performs 8 pm Friday, Dec. 27, at the Hult Center; $33-$48.75, VIP package available, all-ages.