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Review: Varla Jean Merman’s Big Black Hole 

Varla explores outer space — and inner space — in her latest melange of songs, comedy and videos

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Drag performer and comedian Varla Jean Merman is her universe's biggest star — literally, she dresses as the sun to open her show Varla Jean Merman's Big Black Hole. As Merman, Jeffery Roberson has appeared on Ugly Betty and Project Runway, and this show of songs, comedy bits and videos recently had a sold-out run in Provincetown, Massachusetts. To a packed house at Mag's 940, Merman explained that the universe faces impending doom, which she deduced by watching television, and launched into a song about Pluto's status as dwarf planet. The work is Schoolhouse Rock! meets kitschy bathhouse, and of course, there are plenty of Uranus jokes.

  Written by Roberson and Jacques Lamarre, the show is a nonstop laugh fest of Merman's clever, self-deprecating humor and smart science-meets-pop-culture jokes. Much of the comedy is geared toward an LGBT audience — with references to twinks and Liza Minnelli — but she includes a sports joke for "the straight people in the audience," she says. Big Black Hole's format mixes a stand-up comedy vibe with video shorts and expertly performed song parodies. Merman sings a reworked version of Katy Perry's "Extraterrestrial" as a giant alien finger gropes her and George Michael's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," during which Merman, as the sun, tries to go down on Gerald Goode, her accompanist. Goode adds to the show's energy as he sings backup and partakes in a lively back-and-forth with Merman.

  Under Michael Schiralli's direction, Merman is at her best when she plays to the audience. At the opening, she found a straight couple in the audience and continually addressed them by their first names in a goading but friendly way. Her jokes are edgy and sometimes vulgar, including a "too soon" joke about Anne Frank, but her charm allows her to get away with almost anything. She knows how to wait for a joke to land, and she's just plain funny.

  Merman often uses projected videos during transitions, and one featured her eating a can of spray cheese and moaning in front of Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk. There's also physical comedy. At one point, she climbed a rope hung from a ceiling beam. Merman joked about the show's low "production value," but donned an array of glittery costumes, including a Judy Jetson-inspired sparkly dress and a Princess Leia bikini, which she wore while groped by a creepy Jabba the Hutt.

  The science theme made the hourlong Big Black Hole feel cohesive, and there were no lulls in the action. Merman is a talented performer who commands the stage. For those who don't find the lewd humor alien, there's plenty more space for her to explore.

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