Everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask about male to female transitioning. Well, not quite, but Family Jewels: the Making of Veronica Klaus is certainly the most entertaining of musicals about the subject. Klaus is a jewel herself, showcased on the Theatre Rhino stage in all her gloryâ€¦ and painâ€¦ and joyâ€¦ and sweet self-degradation. Klaus is unabashedly unafraid of showing the seedy as well as the vulnerable side of her life story, from his humble and scary beginnings in a small town to her outrageous and glorious growth in the big city. Right off the bat you will realize that not only is Klaus an accomplished singer (named Best Chanteuse by the SF Bay Guardian) but also a performance icon. And as it says on her postcards, she is the REAL Transamerica. Written by Klaus and Jeffrey Hartgraves, and directed for Theatre Rhino production by John Fisher, this one-woman show is a fascinating tour de force of all things Klaus. Kudos to set and light designer Topher Busenberg for perfectly and prominently displaying this production. The stage is a private view of her bedroom, where practically every item on the wall, every piece of furniture, and every costume has its place in revealing all the facets of this jewel. Right down to the book placed on her vanity, Without Remorse by Tom Clancy.
The show begins in the dark with a tape sounding off audible playbills about all the venues she has performed in. Then out she bursts, blasting out her queer-oriented rendition of â€śFeverâ€ť and getting the audience feverishly worked up. â€śHave you ever been this close to someone so famous?â€ť she queries a poor unsuspecting audience member. â€śWell, I am famous in that this may be a small pond, but you have to admit Iâ€™m a big fish!â€ť She adds with a smirk, â€śIâ€™m famous enough to have a reputation that threatens to become a career.â€ť Pulling from her bodice a wrinkled and yellowed uncomplimentary press clipping, she cringes to a review about her as â€śa one-breasted drag queen with arms like a linebacker.â€ť She calls herself a creation, â€śmy own personal arts and science project,â€ť and proceeds to give â€śthe highlights and the lowdown.â€ť She stutters in her difficult attempt to come out to us: â€śI wasâ€¦um â€¦I amâ€¦ umâ€¦ Iâ€™m a t-â€¦ I am a t-t-t-tuba player!â€ť This shocking revelation will become much clearer to us later on.
We learn through clever monologue and witty wordplay of her roots as a husky boy in Gillespie, Illinois who just never fit in except with the misfits. She begins to reveal her whole story, or as she cunningly utilizes the homo homophone, hole story. She resents labels because â€śweâ€™re all unique; even the bland people.â€ť She notes that what makes a diamond is time and a whole lot of pressure, and then sings her signature song that she composed, â€śBlack Diamond Days.â€ť Itâ€™s all about the Gillespie experience summed up in the annual Festival of Coal and her escape, never to return, because â€śyou canâ€™t go back to a church that burned down a lifetime ago.â€ť The tagline is quite telling: â€śYou just canâ€™t force this jewel of a girl into a square setting.â€ť The song insists, â€śSee her shine,â€ť which could very well be the title of this review of that revue.
There is a running gag when periodically a voiceover will portray people from her past while something on the wall suddenly lights up in vivid illustration. My favorite has to be the backlit, suffering Jesus with changing colors to illustrate her days attending a Methodist church. This was the perfect sanctuary for her to experiment with her sexuality and dye a white corset, which she rescued from the church rummage sale and secretly dyed black in the churchâ€™s chili pot, in order to be an appropriate audience member of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Her ministry as an evangelical was as a â€śbig-boned girly boyâ€ť in the God Squad, doing puppet shows about salvation. Yes, you will see the thing itself! Learn how the Holy Spirit snubbed her as she brilliantly interprets Nina Simoneâ€™s â€śTomorrow Is My Turn.â€ť And then thereâ€™s the Bette Midler album cover on the wallâ€”her inspiration and patron saint, who saved her from boredom in her bedroom and sang her to sleep each night on the old phonograph. This lights up as Klaus croons â€śLong Ago and Oh So Far Away.â€ť Another running gag is the occasional bright light and finger cymbal to portray the proverbial light bulb moment and share something we need to know. Sometimes itâ€™s life-changing info and other times itâ€™s just a surprising yet silly disclosure. We become Pavlovâ€™s dog salivating at the sound of a bell. We really are putty in this crafty performerâ€™s hands. And we love it!
Her mother, she divulges, was not a Stepford wife, and split the scene for 15 years, leaving this poor young boy to be raised by siblings and a father who meant well. She laments, â€śNo matter how much you love someone, you canâ€™t always take them along in your journey.â€ť
She only sits down once at an old-fashioned, many-mirrored upright piano to plunk out and sing a woeful tune. The rest of her songs are accompanied via tape. And thatâ€™s just the first act. After intermission she will take you through the lewd, rude, and crude (not to mention gorier) aspects of her transformation. â€śThink outside the box,â€ť she puns lasciviously. And as she points out so succinctly, â€śThis ainâ€™t Cats, folks!â€ť The costumes change one after anotherâ€”as do the songs, as does the mood. Strap yourself in and prepare for a real rollercoaster ride! Family Jewels runs through April 1 at Theatre Rhinoceros Wed.-Sat. at 8pm and Sun. matinees at 3pm.