It may sound like a nichey adult DVD or a hidden camera show on a women’s cable network, but Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad is something else entirely. The creation of New York City-based performing arts maven Susannah Perlman (one of those rare poly-hyphenates that sandwiches “chanteuse” between “comedian” and “producer”), Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad is part musical and comedy revue, spoken-word and burlesque show that takes the borscht belt and whips your ass with it. The girls go bad this Friday evening, at Guerneville’s Russian River Resort.
Perlman, who has appeared on The Learning Channel and MTV and released the albums Beating Around the Bush and Goddess Bless America, was a good little Jewish girl until her bat mitzvah, which she says devolved into some order of clandestine teen booze fest.
“I went to camp, I went to Israel, I lived in a Jewish co-op, I did Jew-y things my entire life,” she recalls. “I’ve never been good at listening to my mother, even though, sadly she’s always right. Bad is a state of being — going your own way and doing your own thing and swimming against the tide. Does that sound too cliche?”
Perlman is good-humored, pretty and possessed of a self-effacing charm. She is as much a businesswoman as she is an artist and her passion for her production and her performers is palpable over the phone during an interview she squeezed in while preparing for a surprise party.
Two years ago, she began cruising New York’s performing arts spaces for talented women who were also “MOT,” or Members Of the Tribe after she conceived the concept of Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad. “I’d start off the same way — I’d sit down, I cross my arms and say ‘I saw the original cast of Cats’ what the fuck can this bitch do?’ You know that sort of attitude us New Yorkers have towards one another,” Perlman snickers.
“I like the whole burlesque genre but I liked all these different things that sort of fit that sort of Jewish, comedic, quirky, kind of thing. Also, at the time, I was producing a lot of women’s shows, which had different degrees of success,” she recalls. “I’d been doing these eclectic women’s shows for what seems like a million years and I’d be promoting to a very small audience — straight women and lesbians. There’s nothing wrong with that, they’re a great audience, but it was like, all the sudden, when I narrowed the scope and made it Jewish women, then our audience broadened out. All these people said ‘Let’s go see the crazy Jews!’ It’s interesting.”
Since then, Perlman has assembled a garrison of 25 female, Jewish performers from which she culls the various incarnations of Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad. The current line-up features five performers whose talents include, according to Perlman, “Hula hoops, a fat lady singing, kick lines, hilarious comedy.” In short, a burlesque of Old Testament proportions.
“It’s campy, it’s kitschy. Anyone who would like Bette Midler would like this show,” says Perlman. “The show is different every time. I’m the same but my material changes from season to season. I’m the ringmaster, I’m Mrs. Partridge.”
Finding an audience when on the road hasn’t always been easy for the girls as when they last visited Northern California and found themselves Cal State Chico on the wrong day due to a booking error and had to schlep people one-by-one to the gig.
“It was horrible. We were running around the campus essentially looking for Jews. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Chico — there aren’t any. We we’re tapping people on the shoulder and asking, ‘Do you know any Jews?’ No, nobody. We’d say, ‘But you look Jewish.’ It was ridiculous.”
Ultimately, Perlman and cast did find and enthrall audiences and the tour proved beneficial in many ways. At another show, a representative from the Mazal Foundation, a Jewish charitable organization, caught their act and later provided the grant that made their current West Coast dates possible.
“It was a small grant, a modest amount to get us to California and make our shows in San Francisco and Santa Cruz affordable and accessible for students to attend,” says Perlman. The ensemble will also make appearances at the University of California at Davis and a return to Chico State.
Perlman doesn’t outwardly politicize her act — it’s not the kind of material engineered to break cultural stereotypes so much as revel in them with cheeky irony. The group’s press materials crow “These bad-ass chosen chicks boldly dare to deconstruct years of tradition, expectations and guilt.” More specifically, it seems, NJGGB is a parody of the crass caricature implicit in the stereotypes of Jewish women themselves, and is effectively a parody of a parody and all the funnier for it. Moreover, Perlman and her performers shatter cultural preconceptions of them by virtue of the very lives they lead.
“I think most of us in the group, in our own way, are walking examples of breaking-a-stereotype — I think for a lack of money, which is not all that JAP-py,” she wryly explains, referring to the acronym “Jewish American Princess.” Some of us try. Some of us have elements of JAP-piness, but that’s only me as a producer saying ‘Can’t you just stay at my friend’s place?’ or hostel versus a hotel — those sort of arguments.”
Inasmuch as being Jewish tent-poles Perlman’s act, she describes herself as “reformed” rather than religious and claims to be “Your standard American Jew.” The same could be said for the rest of the girls. The only departure from the cliche is that they’re all city girls rather than suburban, explains Perlman.
When pressed for her favorite performer among the current line-up, she diplomatically replies “In my mind it’s ‘Who’s the easiest to travel with? Who cares about talent?'” she laughs, then quickly adds “They’re all amazingly talented. This one I really feel is this really crazy, eclectic group of girls.”
Among them is Phat Man Dee who Perlman describes with sisterly affection as being “something like a circus freak.”
“[She’s] this little short, fat, bald girl from Pittsburg who sticks her fist in her mouth and sing L’Chaim. She’s very talented,” Perlman explains, then quickly mentions for the sake of potential blue-hairs in her audience, “She also sings standards.”
Indeed, with this incarnation of Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad, it’s as if Perlman has assembled a cadre of James Bond villainesses, an all-girl version of SPECTRE, each with a special skill used to slay audiences. Like Hula-Hoops.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen someone hula-hoop,” says Perlman by way of introducing the single-monikered Kalki, an Australian performer who generates enough centrifugal force in her hips to keep multiple Hula-Hoops a-spin. “She takes this to a different level. It’s a sort of like a spectator sport. It’s like Olympic proportions. And she’s Jewish.”
Other performers include Cynthia Levin, an alumnus of Chicago’s lauded improvisational comedy company Second City, whom Perlman describes as a “pee-in-your-pants funny — she’s like a female version Lenny Bruce” and singer Michelle Citrin, a five-foot-one singer Perlman bills as a “lil’ grrl with a big sound,” who has opened for pop acts such as Michelle Branch.
“Everyone has a unique story to tell in whatever medium they use. And the hula-hoop girl is the icing on the cake.”
Of course, there are those may kvetch over Perlman’s lampoon of Judaic traditions, like her brother — the rabbi.
“My brother doesn’t talk to me. He talks to my mother who talks to me, who tells me what he thinks. I don’t know if ‘proud’ is the word. I think he admires it. He’s seen it. I don’t know if it was his cup of tea, but I do bring our people together. So, I do what he does to some degree.”
In the end, for Perlman, it’s about getting tushes in seats, Jewish or otherwise.
“We definitely have fans, the more and more we get around. We see people in the audience wearing our t-shirts and people come back especially since the show is different every time. They’ll bring their friends. But when I say we’re the female, Jewish Phish,” she chuckles, “probably not.”
NICE JEWISH GIRLS GONE BAD
Friday September 30 @9pm
16390 4th Street