ONLY AN OCTAVE APART
Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo
Co-created and directed by Zack Winokur
Wilton’s Music Hall – until 22 October
That old adage about madness and genius being closely aligned has seldom been better demonstrated, at least in the theatre, than by this beauteous bitchslap of a show, already an acclaimed sell out in New York and, if there’s any justice, about to follow suit here. The atmospheric, slightly seedy grandeur of Wilton’s feels like an appropriate setting for these two wildly contrasting yet surprisingly complementary, and entirely unique, world class talents and their gloriously offbeat mini-extravaganza.
Pitched somewhere between cabaret and recital, but most definitely a piece of true theatre, Only An Octave Apart (the title refers to the fact that Anthony Roth Costanzo is a classical counter tenor while Justin Vivian Bond possesses a resonant deep baritone at home singing everything from torch songs to disco…so they literally do sing an octave apart) is a strange and compelling melange of the screamingly funny and just (exquisitely controlled) screaming. It’s glamorous and outrageous but, such is the mood-shifting brilliance of the performers and Zack Winokur’s deceptively clever staging, the tone can, and does, turn on a dime from dirty-minded camp joy to breath-holding, tear-jerking poignancy. This is audience control of the highest order.
Other than the unlikely but exhilarating pairing of Costanzo’s ravishing, bell-like sound with the smoke and slate of Bond’s vocal tone, it’s the contrast and chemistry between the two stars as talents and humans that fascinates most perhaps. As Bond (who, from a distance and with every passing year, more and more resembles Cybill Shepherd or the much missed Broadway diva Marin Mazzie) gleefully points out, they’re a star of the sometimes rough and ready downtown cabaret circuit while Costanzo has graced the stages of everywhere from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to ENO and Glyndebourne. If Costanzo’s stage persona is irrepressibly good humoured and boyish, albeit capable of real emotional depth when required (astonishingly, he’s 40 but reads on stage as at least a dozen years younger), Bond is, to quote Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, “mountain beautiful”, a statuesque, louchely glamorous figure with a mega-watt smile, a killer side-eye and zero filter. Costanzo is an adorable Peter Pan, if J M Barrie’s ageless boy had a voice to make angels weep, to Bond’s slightly demented society hostess doling out cocktails while telling cock tales. He’s warm and engaging, they’re magnetic, elegantly naughty and a little dangerous, and together these boutique superstars create some crazy magic.
In between droll, delightful banter, the musical choices are nothing if not eclectic. Costanzo treats us to several pieces from his classical repertoire, including some Schubert, Purcell, Gluck and a breathlessly brilliant (breathless for us that is, not him) version of the Crudel! Perchè finora duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in which he fearlessly and successfully takes on soprano and baritone parts. He also joins his co-star in a rip roaring Sylvester disco number and thrilling reinventions of Queen’s Under Pressure and the Bangles’s Walk Like an Egyptian (yes really). Nico Muhly’s terrific arrangements and Daniel Schlosberg’s nine piece band soar throughout.
Bond’s voice, a distinctive fusion of screech and guttural growl, is no less remarkable an instrument than Costanzo’s in it’s own way, emphasising phrasing over tonal loveliness: it’s by no means a beautiful sound but it’s an expressive one that compels you to listen, especially in tandem with it’s owner’s innate charisma. Bond sashays through a weirdly sexy appropriation of Me And My Shadow that bewitches, and delivers a raw, affecting version of Dido’s wistful White Flag that troubles and aches. The programme runs even deeper and more haunting when the stars reinvent the Peter Gabriel-Kate Bush duet Don’t Give Up as a meditative response to the ongoing battle for trans rights, gay rights and basic human decency: it’s tender, profoundly affecting and lifts an already exceptional evening into a rapturous stratosphere.
There’s an authenticity about Bond and Costanzo, both separately and collectively, that goes beyond the glitter, the outlandish almost-matching outfits, the sometimes groan-worthy jokes, the bizarre but inspired musical choices, and Bond’s repeated mantra of “keep it shallow, keep it pretty, keep it moving”… these are two true artists at the very top of their game, and you should do whatever it takes to see them. Fabulous, in the most authentic sense of the word, and, perhaps surprisingly, moving (and not necessarily in the way Mx Bond meant). A must-see.