By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In describing her most recent stage production, "Peaches Does Herself," Peaches (aka Tornoto-born Merrill Beth Nisker), said she wanted it to be a show "that Broadway would never be able to present." A jukebox musical of songs from the pop singer's last 10 years of suggestive dancefloor hits, from "F--- the Pain Away" to "I Feel Cream," the show premiered in Berlin and featured simulated sex acts, dancers in plush vagina costumes and prosthetic penises, and lots of parading by a 6-foot-5 nude transsexual. Peaches herself undergoes a sex change during the show.
Broadway might shy away from that. Peaches, however, doesn't shy from Broadway. The button-pushing, gender-defying, self-described "stage whore" brings her latest show to Chicago this week just in time for Christmas: a solo performance of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Given that she bills the show as "Peaches Christ Superstar," the mind reels as to what she's done to the popular rock opera about the Christian messiah. "What's the Buzz," with hair clippers? An instructional and graphically acted-out "I Don't Know How to Love Him"? Something that out-Herods Herod?
Actually, the most shocking element of this show is just how normal it is.
"It's played completely straight," she said in her recent conversation with the Sun-Times. "I've had this in mind since I was 15. I knew a lot of musicals when I was a kid, from my parents, but not that one. It was mostly 'West Side Story' and 'Hair' or whatever. Then someone gave me a tape" — she laughs — "literally, a cassette! I got obsessed with it, with the idea of being in a rock opera. It was '70s rock music I could relate to. It was easy to get obsessed by it. I would sing all the parts by myself, and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to do the whole thing myself one day?' Even then I knew it was a ridiculous thought, but I really wanted it to happen."
Peaches, 44 (the moniker comes from the end of Nina Simone's song "Four Women," when Simone shouts, "My name is Peaches!"), was contacted early this year by the historic Hebbel am Ufer Theatre in Berlin, where she now lives. "They were fishing for a production, and I said, 'I've got one!' I pitched this, and they said great. Then I thought, uh-oh — now I actually have to do this. Because when I'm alone and I sing this show, I skip all the high notes I can't sing, all that white-man Jesus metal voice. So now I had to dig deep into it and make it sound good, make it into something I could sing."
At first, the company that held the rights to the musical balked. The premiere shows planned for March were canceled when Peaches was refused performance licenses for the songs.
She immediately took to Twitter to voice her anguish. "[They] claim that this project is of no interest to them due to its unconventional form," Peaches wrote in a series of tweets. "It's a shame that the authorities feel threatened by this fresh approach. I know a lot of people who really love the music and would appreciate this stripped-down solo performance. I have so much respect for the music and lyrics from the original score and this was my way of honouring that."
"It's because of who I am, and I understand," she told the Sun-Times. "But it was never my intention for this to be a campy performance at all. It's a tribute."
Eventually, composer Webber and lyricist Rice cleared the way for "Peaches Christ Superstar." (Perhaps they felt a kinship with Peaches: "Jesus Christ Superstar" was controversial when it first appeared in 1971 and was banned in some countries.) Rice himself attended one of the first Berlin performances.
"Before the show they told me, 'Tim Rice is on the guest list tonight.' I was like, yeah right. I'll believe that when I see it. Then they're like, 'Tim Rice is here!' Oh God. What if I get a lyric wrong? Which I did — I sang 'king of God' instead of 'son of God' once. I was so nervous. He came backstage after the show and said, 'I can't believe they wouldn't let you put this on.'"
"Peaches Christ Superstar" is, aside from pianist and longtime collaborator Chilly Gonzales, a one-woman show. Peaches sings every part of each song herself — the characters of Jesus, Judas, Pilate, Herod, Mary Magdalene and more.
"The song 'Everything's Alright' — that has Jesus and Judas and Mary in it, and I didn't want this to seem like I'm singing to imaginary people," Peaches said, explaining that she crafted the show so it wouldn't seem that she had a multiple-personality disorder. "I found that if I trusted the music the way it's written, it's naturally clear who's singing through me each time. It's not like I put on an extra piece of hair when Mary's lines come up, or a beard for Jesus. I wanted the emotion of the song to bring that out. I wanted my minimal Peaches approach to strip this down — like Peaches, not like a stripper — and show the raw emotion that exists naturally and plentifully in these songs."
As most reviewers noted about the March 25-27 premieres in Berlin, this performance shows off something we don't always pay attention to when Peaches is slinging double and triple entendres over dance and hip-hop tracks: She has a great voice.
"People are surprised by my singing," she said. "In a Peaches show, I'm jumping around, jumping on you, screaming, yelling. This is straight. ... Sure, a lot of people are expecting a lot of different things, but when we did it in Berlin some people wound up very emotional and crying. People were saying, 'What the hell? I didn't expect Peaches to do that to me!'"
She just hopes the audience at the Portage Theater is more easygoing than the group she encountered years ago at Park West.
"We opened for Elastica there [on Sept. 27, 2000]. This is back when M.I.A. was their videographer. We had this crazy little thing where we decided to play every song we knew through the course of the tour. Chicago was the fifth night, and we'd already gone through 40 or so songs. So we got there and it was — I wouldn't say we were at the bottom of the barrel, but we were making stuff up. The crowd wasn't having it. It was a rough night, but I thought it was the funniest place to do that. All of Chicago's not that uptight, is it?"
'PEACHES CHRIST SUPERSTAR'
• 8 p.m. Dec. 14
• Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee
• Tickets: $25, (773) 736-4050, portagetheater.org
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.