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An Improbable Legend 

The best gender-bending live shows since David Bowie donned mascara

Wednesday, Feb 23 2005
Veronica Klaus is nothing short of a Bay Area performance icon. For decades the transgendered chanteuse has injected San Francisco with much-needed high style and some of the most delicious gender-bending live shows you've seen since David Bowie donned mascara in the '70s.

Klaus, a bombastic redhead with a natural affinity for spectacle, is known for such splashy stage moves as materializing from a giant Valentine heart at the Great American Music Hall, opting for hot dog costumes rather than evening gowns, and tickling audiences pink with all the things she can do with a tuba. To top that off, she's mysteriously managed to retain her youthful grace, even after nearly 20 years of performing. Fans and novices alike should expect some of the same in the songwriter/recording artist's new biographical play, Family Jewels, which chronicles Klaus' transformation from shy Midwestern lad to voluptuous S.F. diva. ("You just can't force this jewel of a girl into a square setting," Klaus has insisted.) The idea for a performance centered on Klaus' personal journey in life and love stemmed from her followers' frequently asked questions about the person behind the legend. Sometimes frivolous, sometimes heartbreaking, Family Jewels is a comprehensive memoir teeming with family complications, romantic debacles, pre- and post-op musings, and snatches of song (including originals like "Black Diamond Days" and covers like the Carpenters' vintage hit "Superstar") -- which is a good thing, too, since it's Klaus' voice that makes her such an inimitable star. She's equipped with a whiskey-soaked contralto that delivers images of humid bayou nights, barroom brawls, and sex with rugged strangers.

In fact, it's Klaus' eclectic mixture of R&B, blues, jazz, show tunes, and rock 'n' roll that transforms Family Jewels into more than a campy cabaret revue. The performer's influences range from Dinah Washington to Tim Curry, and she says she "wouldn't be caught dead doing a Gershwin show." Despite the association between camp and cabaret, Klaus delivers a production that takes both her male-to-female transformation and her talent seriously and refuses to wink and snigger at the audience. She has expressed reluctance in the past about doing work revolving around gender because it has so often been reduced to a buzzword that detracts from her music. But in Jewels, her refusal to see herself as a cliché or a joke elevates her material, transforming it from what could have been a one-note parody into a nuanced biography that draws in even viewers who think at the outset that they share little with Klaus. It's a fascinating approach to the curiosity all star-struck spectators have about what goes on inside and outside the entertainer's dressing room -- no matter what set of plumbing said performer hides under her fabulous costumes. -- Nirmala Nataraj

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Nirmala Nataraj


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