It’s not quite right to call the conversations between songs in Only an Octave Apart “banter.” At least a third of the non-song material in this duo cabaret is just Anthony Roth Costanzo breaking up while Justin Vivian Bond waxes outrageous. Viv, hair in a blonde Eva Perón swoop, dreams of the rewards they deserve, like piles of drugs and hot boys. (Anthony giggles.) Viv forgets lyrics. (Anthony giggles.) Viv stands there. (Anthony giggles.) There is plenty of scripted patter, like Costanzo’s arch references to the level of stage support he’s accustomed to at international opera houses, but it’s this helpless, gurgling hysteria that sets the tone. “Don’t make me laugh!” Costanzo pleads. “It causes phlegm!” If you have always wanted to watch the country’s finest countertenor getting tickled to death by an alt-cabaret legend, here’s your chance.
The original plan, they tell us, was to do a show, press a CD, release a single, achieve glory. The shutdown upended and reversed those plans, so they made the album first, and the stage production at St. Ann’s Warehouse follows in its wake. It’s hard to say what it would have been 18 months ago, but I’m grateful they needed to wait. Everything about the gorgeous Only an Octave Apart feels tinted by the shutdown — the faint pink of its languor, the deep blue of its loneliness, and the shimmering silver of our slightly out-of-control emotional release.
Speaking of color, the physical production itself is flooded with it. Costumer Jonathan Anderson keeps the pair in sumptuous, glittering gowns — including a pair of stretchy velveteen dresses that seem to have mated with I.M. Pei’s pyramids. Director Zack Winokur, set designer Carlos Soto, and lighting designer John Torres dress the stage as if it’s a diva too, draping her in vivid satins and chiffons. The front curtain is electric-blue taffeta, pulled aside to reveal a green velvet grotto, backed by a filmy gauze curtain, drawn in front of a curtain of silver lamé. The backdrops do a kind of striptease, each layer dragging slowly aside as the show progresses. The energy between Bond and Costanzo is sweet and unsensual, but the show still oozes sex, partly because of that naughty stage set that’s always slipping out of her robes to get into something more comfortable.
Bond and Costanzo’s two voices couldn’t be more different. Bond’s trans-chanteuse growl sounds like a thousand cigarettes, a million smoky bars. They can sharpen their clarinet tone to something almost feline, so songs might end on a feral yowl instead of a note. Beauty swims in and out of Bond’s sound — sometimes their voice strains and breaks, sometimes (as in a medley of Judy Garland’s “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and Rickie Lee Jones’s “Rainbow Sleeves”) it vibrates at the room’s own resonance, and the air around you warms. Costanzo, on the other hand, is high and pristine where Bond is low and dirty, precise where Bond slides like a high heel on a barroom floor. He refers to opera as his “safe space,” though listening to how he handles Purcell and Bizet and Gluck like bare blades seems dangerous enough.
Voices like these do not blend, at least not in the sense of disappearing sonically into each other. When the two sing together, as in the title song about the eight steps between their ranges (“My F is here! My F is here!”), their sounds stand apart. The contrast actually heightens our appreciation: Nico Muhly’s rich arrangements treat them not like two instruments in a symphony but like a brass band and a string quartet that have found a way to coexist onstage. They frolic around the pop and opera canon, including songs by a Dido and about a Dido and at one point playing a Singin’ in the Rain–style lip-sync game. If you clap hard enough — and you’d better or Bond will yell at you — you’ll hear their encore, a mash-up of “Walk Like an Egyptian” and Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. Costanzo played the doomed pharaoh in Phelim McDermott’s production at the Met, a role he returns to later this fall. “Walk like an Egyptian!” Bond instructs, and Costanzo obligingly glides across the stage. Worlds collide; fireworks ensue.
As delightful as it is to hear them sing together, and as nourishing, you should go in warned: The solo pieces might wreck you. In Bond’s case, the “Rainbow” medley showcases a specific talent for heartbroken charisma. Bond mentions their mantra several times — “Keep it shallow, keep it pretty, keep it moving” — but their real strength is the Judy-ish ability to freeze an audience in a painful moment, to keep it still and aching. In his solo song, Costanzo sings Liszt’s setting of Goethe’s “Über allen Gipfeln” tenderly and hesitantly, as though the notes themselves are bruised. It’s a song about death and peace, matched so exactly to Costanzo’s bell-like tone it goes beyond my ability to describe it. When I look at my notes about it, they just say “as beautiful as silence.” I’m sorry — I know that doesn’t make any sense at all.
I found myself thinking about Only an Octave Apart in terms of another musical piece playing in Brooklyn right now: the lovely Cross Over at the postage-stamp theater Jack in Clinton Hill. The gifted composer Justin Hicks is performing an autobiographical cabaret of his own, paying tribute to his preacher father. It hasn’t got any of the glitzy lushness (or the full orchestra) of the St. Ann’s Warehouse show. It’s the kind of scrappy production in which the audience has to provide the beat because there isn’t a rhythm section. Since he accompanies himself, Hicks has set up a mirror on the piano so he can look into it and meet the eyes of his tiny audience sitting behind him. The show is basically a secular service: We exchange wishes for health and peace with the people around us. That quality is not what they have in common — Only an Octave Apart would never do something so pastoral or touchy-feely. (“I’m not great at sincerity,” says Bond at one point when Costanzo talks about what making the show has meant to him.) Instead, it was when Only an Octave Apart triggered the inevitable disco ball that I remembered Hicks’s mirror on his piano. Such different shows, but the reflections were performing the same job: They were sending light into the audience, and the light was bouncing back to the people onstage. It’s a way of making contact again, right? After all this time.
Only an Octave Apart is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through October 3.
Cross Over is at Jack through September 26.