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Mr. New Orleans 

Ricky Graham takes audiences on a personal nostalgia trip of New Orleans in his latest show. Does anybody remember a year when Ricky Graham didn't win the Gambit Weekly readers' poll for best actor? I don't. It's odd that Graham has a monopoly on that particular niche of fame. After all, he usually sets out to entertain, not emote. When he does take a role, it's almost always in a comedy -- half the time, a comedy he's both written and directed. So what are the Gambit readers trying to tell us? They love the guy. They love his kind of theater.

Well, good news, Gambit poll responders. Ricky's back with a new original cabaret show at Le Chat Noir. I Know What It Means is vintage Graham. Despite the bittersweet title, the laureate of local jesters is not dealing with yet more Katrina veltschmertz, but rather with the slower and more melancholy destructiveness of time.

Graham basically performs the show alone, accompanied by a multitude of other characters thanks to his own droll mimicry, the costumes of Cecile Casey Covert and the wigs of Amanda Hebert and Brian Peterson.

Whatever persona he transforms into, Graham stays front and center. He carries the night partly with jokes and banter but mostly with song. He's effectively backed up by Jefferson Turner on piano and Eric Klerks on guitar. The tonic tunes (penned by Turner, Fred Palmisano and Stuart Baker-Bergen) tend to celebrate cultural flora and fauna that have passed into Proustian reverie. These songs are our melodic madeleines. Or they're meant to be.

In his first entrance, Graham sports a glittering jacket that can no doubt be spotted from Alpha Centauri and hair high enough to scrape a 19th century ceiling. I didn't get who this individual was exactly, but the hair, Graham explained in an aside, came courtesy of Al Copeland -- so maybe Popeye's is part of the puzzle. Here I should add that I arrived in New Orleans on New Year's Eve 1973, rather that's the day the freighter I was on ran aground at the mouth of the Mississippi. While many of the things Graham refers to were still kicking around then, the scythe of change was already in motion. Some of Graham's memories go back decades earlier.

Anyway, Mr. High-Hair sings his joy at being back home, because he loves so "hawd (hard) his little double on St. Claude." The taste of the love is the words themselves. Such is the humor of it.

If we can't dunk our beignet in our cafŽ au lait for a blast of nostalgia we can turn to our photo albums. Graham gives us a running series of projections along with his suite of songs and commentary.

Some of the commentary is shocking -- not in the way that's usually meant. "We used to dress up to go to Canal Street," he says. A world flashes before our eyes -- a world as lost and archaic as Europe before the Great War. "I'm feeling nostalgic," Graham admits at one point. "But I'm taking Maalox and it's helping." After the image of old women wearing gloves downtown, the loss of Maison Blanche, Holmes and such behemoths of commerce seems like collateral damage.

One of the running gags of the show features none other than the perennial best actress of the Gambit Weekly readers' poll, Becky Allen, who just happens to be one of Graham's frequent collaborators. Allen keeps turning up in unlikely places -- and actors, even when they're the best of friends, hate to share the spotlight. Photoshop must have gotten quite a workout judging by the curious torsos on which Allen's mug appeared.

But, back to the star and author. Graham's focus in this show (as in much of his oeuvre) is on New Orleans itself. Take this paradigm, for instance, for good housekeeping: "when you know how much pressure to put on a roach so it kills it, but you don't mess up the carpet."

In brief: If you are a Ricky Graham fan, you'll enjoy this outing. He's at the top of his form. He sings well --Êdon't forget the man has won accolades for roles in Gilbert and Sullivan. He knows how to milk an audience so that they don't know they're being milked -- or even actually like it. And while I don't mean to compare Graham's audience to contented cows, there are sure as hell worse things to be.

I also must mention the supporting cast of one. Stage manager Brian Johnston puts in a hilarious cameo as the most mournful, glum and possibly psychotic elf in Santa Land. Proof positive that there's no such thing as a small role.

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