AROUND CERTAIN FIGURES, it can sometimes feel as though the hype is so pervasive that it is difficult to find anyone capable of formulating a genuine opinion. In Berlin, this is especially true for Peaches, the electropop princess of porn, who many in the local, ever-intertwined art/fashion/music/club scenes consider nothing less than a living legend, if not an infallible god. Call me a cynic (I prefer skeptic), but when I heard that Peaches intended to perform, solo, the entirety of Jesus Christ Superstar, with piano accompaniment by close friend and compatriot Chilly Gonzales, my initial reaction was to laugh in the face of the wide-eyed hipster apostle who brought me the good news. Nevertheless, I immediately arranged a ticket for last Thursday’s premiere, half expecting to witness a self-crucifixion, half hoping to finally catch a glimpse of the light.
As it so happens, this skeptic also loves to be proven wrong. Not only did Peaches set it off, she managed to surprise us all by showing off an expansive vocal range, a musician’s natural sensitivity to the dynamics of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, and an emotive prowess that is rarely if ever displayed in her own, less holy, music. (Her radio-unfriendly, now decade-old hit single “Fuck the Pain Away” was hardly an object lesson in melodic contour.)
The rest of the show wasn’t half bad, either, though it was clear from the beginning that the music would be the star that night. It all began in the blue and white light of the cosmos illuminating the empty stage, the theater’s exposed back wall recalling the self-referential framing that has always famously inflected this album-turned–stage show–turned-film. (Remember the great opening scene with the hippies driving out into the desert and unloading their VW buses?) With a little help from her friends—namely, designers John Renaud and Mundi, as well as a troupe of lithe, punkish dancers who rose up for the finale—all was kept understated and ham-free, while Gonzales, for his part, rendered an athletic accompaniment on grand piano. At times, it seemed that the piano was playing him. He knew the entire score by heart—no sheet music. (I guess two hours of Webber isn’t much for a musician who broke a world record last year with a solo piano performance that lasted 27 hours, 3 minutes, and 44 seconds.) By the time she got to “Everything’s Alright”—rendering Mary Magdalene with a soft restraint that seemed to evoke Nina Simone’s playfulness, before switching to a soulful, gospel-like bravado when singing Jesus’s response—I was sold.
Not that there wasn’t any reason to complain: Number one was the gigantic cross that appeared at the end. The work of Andreas Golder, it looked fantastic—a great purple blobby mess of bones, flesh, and organs, crowned with a giant penis. But could the symbolism be more heavy-handed? (Headed?)
The afterparty, around the corner at the WAU Café, was a subdued affair. Poor Sheila Chipperfield, former bassist of the English band Elastica, was forced to DJ to an empty room; the crowd congregated around picnic tables outside, as Berliners do ecstatically at the first vague sign of warm weather. I spotted Gina V. D’Orio, of the fantastic electrotrash cabaret outfit Cobra Killer, seated alone, and pulled up a chair. She regaled me late into the night with hilarious tour stories, as well as anecdotes of Peaches’s early years as an unknown Berlin transplant—which actually wasn’t very long ago. Indeed, in a city where life tends to proceed at a snail’s pace, Peaches’s meteoric rise to international stardom at the turn of the millennium remains undeniably impressive. It occurred to me that the local fervor that Peaches generated might in fact be a genuine paean of hope in a city brimming with tragically underrecognized talent.
When asked for my overall verdict, I admitted that, while I had previously tended to think of Peaches as “merely” a performer, her Superstar rendition proved that she is also a born singer. “But she’s Peaches,” D’Orio protested. “She doesn’t have to prove anything.” Hmm. I guess some would say the same about Jesus.