John Jarboe, artistic director of the Bearded Ladies, posing during his musical event “Color Me Bearded.” Copyright Kathryn Raines, 2017
“Audience, can you hear me?” asked Barbra Streisand in a parlor room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).
Well, sort of. Vocal range and stunning evening gowns aside, this particular Streisand was a little bit different: She had a beard.
The Bearded Ladies, a local queer cabaret performance art troupe, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Jewish icon’s Color Me Barbra TV special filmed at the museum by taking a skeptical but willing audience on a musical journey through the PMA.
Artistic Director John Jarboe, who led the Color Me Bearded musical event as Streisand, said the company tends to create “poison cookies.”
“It’s something delicious, nostalgic, music-driven, and then there’s a twist of a knife,” the 30-year-old said.
Jarboe, a Michigan native who is not Jewish, had about six outfit changes in the hour-and-a-half performance, many of which were spot-on reproductions of Streisand’s outfits (and makeup) from Color Me Barbra.
The Philadelphia Voices of Pride, as well as volunteer musicians, accompanied Jarboe on the trip down the rabbit hole into Streisand’s world.
Filmed in 1966, Color Me Barbra showed Streisand singing and dancing from room to room of the museum as she jumped from painting to painting. The TV special was made into an album.
Jarboe sang pieces of Streisand’s works from that album, like “Non C’est Rien,” “Where or When,” “Draw Me a Circle” and “Gotta Move.”
Meanwhile, bodysuited Bearded Ladies members led the audience through the museum by crawling on hands and knees. An audience member was called upon to peel off one of the Ladies’ bodysuits only to reveal another bodysuit underneath.
A breakdancer, who acted as museum curator, led the group through “pre-Brexit British rooms” while providing Streisand’s Color Me Barbra narration.
The bodysuited performers chanted, “You don’t own me” to the male busts in one section and even flipped the bird to a bust of Benjamin Franklin.
At one point, Jarboe stood in one of the museum’s parlor-like rooms and sang “Second Hand Rose.”
“I’ve always had a passion for furniture and female nudes, and if you think about it, they’re basically interchangeable, right?” Jarboe said, mimicking Streisand’s Brooklyn accent. “They’re classic, functional and perky.”
After the performance, Jarboe explained more about the musical piece, which he directed and wrote, while composer Heath Allen did all the arrangements.
“Basically, it’s a musical walking tour of the PMA’s European galleries from 1500 to 1800 with Barbra Streisand,” he said. “Instead of in the special jumping into the paintings like she does, we have the paintings jump out at you and objects and fixtures of the art museum like security officers that normally people would see as invisible or don’t talk to them or ask them where the bathroom is come to life in a new way.”
But why Barbra?
“I’m actually not a huge Barbra fan, or I wasn’t before I started this. I was really interested in the Color Me Barbra special and how it used the museum as a playground,” he said. “At the time, 1966, museums were having low attendance and they were trying to figure out what is a modern museum. It was also a really political time of unrest, and Barbra Streisand, a Jewish girl from Brooklyn, comes in and dances around the museum and owns it. That’s a pretty powerful gesture. …
“Barbra, even though she was radical at the time and a really strong image of a woman, she was also very conservative and nostalgic. I saw some relationship between Barbra’s identity as sort of a conservative force and how we are approaching drag queens today.”
Jarboe was also motivated by the notion of transforming the museum’s space.
“What was most important about this piece was actually filling the museum with a bunch of bodies and people that would never be featured in the museum, especially in that wing,” he said. “There’s three people of color in that whole wing because most of them were servants and slaves, so to have people of color dancing in the museum, to have trans people … that was what was actually important.
“Barbra is kind of like the opener of Pandora’s box, and all of the rest of the people and their stories is really the content.”
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