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20 Mar 2018

A Mannish Minx: Drag Star Varla Jean Merman Brings Material Both New and Classic to Her Five-Week Residency at the Copa

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Varla Jean Merman. Varla Jean Merman.

The month of April (and the final weekend of March) just got a whole lot more entertaining here in the Coachella Valley: The Copa Room Palm Springs is hosting the immense talent of Varla Jean Merman, the naïve yet bawdy drag chanteuse with a heart of gold and razor-sharp wit, on Fridays and Saturdays over five weekends.

Although Merman—created and portrayed by Jeffery Roberson—has performed to sold-out crowds before in Palm Springs, most recently with her Bad Heroine show in October, she has never had a residency here like this. Over the 10 shows, she will both workshop new material and bring back old favorites in what she describes as a roulette wheel of shows where audiences never know what they’ll get.

For the uninitiated, Merman is purportedly the illegitimate daughter of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman, who was shipped off to a Louisiana convent after their real 38-day marriage—because she had Borgnine’s face. She is mannish minx, a raunchy physical comic with a rich, powerful singing voice.

I chatted with Roberson while he was in New Orleans preparing for an upcoming show. (Merman was unavailable, Roberson said. Why? “Varla lives in the storage unit, not in the house,” he said.) I’ve seen Roberson in action before as Merman, and his ability to engage an audience is indeed impressive. He said he’s too desperate for approval to ever let an audience go quiet.

“I’m like a dog with a bone when performing, and I always get lots of bones when in Palm Springs,” Roberson said.

Merman’s upcoming Palm Springs shows—titled Warm Sands, Cold Heart—will pay homage to the town and the neighborhood she stays in while here. Her opening number, which she describes as a love letter to Palm Springs, recalls the era when men used to walk the neighborhood at night, looking for Mr. Right Now. Although Roberson is what I’d describe as “Palm Springs young,” he understands that Merman’s material skews to a slightly older demographic—which is exactly why she loves playing here.

In fact, Merman has been performing in Palm Springs for at least 15 years, and she just unearthed a videotape from a show she did in 2003 at Heaven Night Club (now Zeldas) called Under a Big Top. She is resurrecting some of that circus theme for her upcoming shows … now that the world is being run by a clown.

Taking inspiration from the works of John Waters, Roberson started doing drag on video well before he stepped onstage; his shows used to feature six or seven videos, each up to 10 minutes long. However, since more and more of his audience spends large portions of their days staring at video screens, he feels people need to see Merman live onstage.

Roberson credits Merman’s role in the 2003 cult hit film Girls Will Be Girls with cementing the Varla we see today. That film—about three actresses navigating Hollywood, love and aging—was the first time someone else had written for his character, and seeing someone else’s perception of her helped Roberson solidify the beautiful character.

Roberson said he can’t believe he’s been performing as Merman for more than 20 years.

“Young people can get away with a lot more than some old lady,” he quipped about the challenges of aging.

As Merman and Roberson have aged and changed, so, too, has their comedy. Roberson watched the arc of the HIV epidemic, and when he first started, he said, jokes about promiscuity were just not seen as very funny. Today, he said, in contrast, jokes about using condoms seem dated.

“People just don’t see the humor in condoms filled with mayonnaise like they used to,” he observed.

Varla Jean Merman will perform Warm Sands, Cold Heart at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, from Friday, March 30, through Saturday, April 28, at the Copa Room Palm Springs, 244 E. Amado Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25 to $35. For tickets or more information, visit www.varlaonline.com.

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