SHINY HOT NIGHTS; MORE SONGS OF JONI MITCHELL,” by John Kelly. At Fez, 380 Lafayette St., NYC. Weekends through Jan. 13.
Last season, when performance artist John Kelly was appearing on Broadway in the much-admired “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ ” he told a reporter: “At some point I realized that none of the people I was working with had the foggiest notion of who I was or what I did, because they generally didn’t venture south of 14th Street very much.”
In the Broadway musical adaptation of the great Joyce story, the dominant tale from his collection, “Dubliners,” Kelly played Bartell D’Arcy, a visiting singer of considerable celebrity, a character the author reputedly based on John McCormack, singing a mock opera “aria” composed for the occasion by the show’s Irish-born composer, Shaun Davey.
What Kelly does below 14th Street is both varied and plentiful, and in some ways as difficult to describe accurately as is the term “performance art” itself. His current effort is “Shiny Hot Nights; More Songs of Joni Mitchell,” which is playing through Jan. 13 at Fez, 330 Lafayette St.
Kelly, like other performance artists, generally works alone, but this time, for the 102 minutes in which he performs the music of the Canadian singer-songwriter, he is assisted on keyboards by “Zecca Esquibel as Georgia O’Keefe.” Whether or not the late, New Mexico-based painter was actually an adroit accompanist is left to the collective imagination of the eager, appreciative audience that can be depended upon to turn up wherever Kelly is playing and whatever he’s doing.
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Kelly is an accomplished singer in his own right and a clever, albeit unclassifiable, mimic. His “Joni” is accurately and affectionately observed, particularly sharp in its re-creation of the performer’s nervous, slightly distracted-seeming stage persona, but with just a touch of the sort of devastatingly effective exaggeration that jogs the memories of audience members who have seen the singer in concert.
It’s all here, from the compulsive and vaguely self-conscious tossing of the mane of straight blonde hair to the somewhat fragmented nature of her between-song patter.
Also present is the ego-driven edge the control-prone star has demonstrated in recent years, its presence constituting yet another tribute to Kelly’s accuracy and his insight.
Kelly first performed as Joni Mitchell at the first Wigstock celebration in Thompkins Square Park in the East Village and he’s done it periodically in the intervening years, always varying the program, adding new songs and removing others.
Here are “The Circle Game” and other songs that have been virtually attached to Mitchell over the passing decades, and Kelly moves from one number to the next with grace and spirit to spare.
It might be a not unreasonable question why John Kelly should want to impersonate Joni Mitchell in what constitutes a concert performance in a club tucked away in the cellar of a restaurant.
One clear answer might have something to do with the fact that he does it so well, without mockery or even a hint of condescension.
Male performers, after all, have impersonated female stars for what seems like centuries. How many Judy Garlands have there been? How many Tallulah Bankheads? In more recent times, Marilyn Monroe and Barbra Streisand have sprouted what sometimes seems like an infinite number of clonelike imitators.
What is possibly most unusual about “Shiny Hot Nights: More Songs of Joni Mitchell” is that rock and folk performers don’t normally seem to be obvious subjects for study and replication on the part of night club mimics.
Even so, performers have frequently enough offered their impressions of folkies like Bob Dylan and Joan B’z. So why not Joni Mitchell?
The singer clearly approves, since the postcard advertising the show has both the real and the “faux” Joni, seated together, smiling broadly, with Kelly’s arm comfortably looped around the Canadian performer’s shoulder.
— Joseph Hurley