Jeffery T. Roberson a/k/a Varla Jean Merman: The Medium Rare.
Just as there would have been a time that you would have never predicted that Roger Miller would win a Tony for Best Score -- or that Sally Field would take home a couple of Oscars -- you probably never assumed that you’d see Varla Jean Merman star in Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera The Medium.
Wouldn’t you have assumed that the supposed love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine would be more likely to play Baba Wawa than Baba? This is, after all, a medium who’s no Madame Arcati. Baba holds phony séances until there’s a day of reckoning that drives her both to insanity and murder – which is par for the grand opera course.
But ho-ho-ho, who’s got the high notes now?
Jeffery T. Roberson, that’s who. “Yes,” he says, “the ads say ‘Jeffery T. Roberson a/k/a Varla Jean Merman.’ But that’s just because more people know me as Varla Jean than Jeffery.”
What Roberson wants everyone to know is that he’s playing it – you should pardon the expression – straight. Those expecting a hoot will be surprised.
“When we did it in Provincetown this summer,” he says, “we set that serious tone right away. The audience did laugh a little too hard at the beginning until they saw that we were on the level. What I liked best was that people who weren’t into opera got it and liked it. It was, after all, first produced as a Broadway show.”
Now Roberson and the original Provincetown cast will play through Nov. 11 at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at 10 West 64th Street. “The rest of the cast is comprised of real opera singers,” he says. “They’ve all been very complimentary to me – although I must admit that we go about this in two different ways.”
Roberson’s manager Mark Cortale -- a former opera singer himself -- suggested the atypical assignment to his client. “Maybe because it’s an older role,” admits Roberson, “for my ingénue days are over. This is the last stop for a mezzo – especially considering that it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Yes, he put his famous falsetto to good use when playing Mary Sunshine in the Weisslers’ Chicago. “I was a vacation swing for a while and did it on the road for six months,” he says. “I only did six performances a week, and only had that one number. I have a lot more to do in The Medium. Being angry and using falsetto don’t go together. Screaming can come across as comical. So I have to be careful. I have to have a heavy enough voice to be threatening but light enough so that I can sing it for the next few weeks.”
Roberson affectionately calls The Medium “a precursor to Ghost without the pottery wheel.” And yet, it’s the music rather than the plot that most intrigues him.
“I don’t believe in the paranormal,” he says with a dismissive hand wave. “And I come from New Orleans, where a great many people believe in voodoo and séances. I just haven’t had any evidence. So I assume that it’s the years of cheating people that gets the better of Baba. Or maybe she’s just mentally ill. I can see where a woman can believe that she’s going crazy and assume that years of drinking have caused a chemical change in her brain.”
Speaking of chemistry – yeah, chemistry – Roberson as a youth was interested in making that august subject his life’s work. Then a teacher who overheard him speaking in a corridor approached him and asked if he could sing. Not long after, he was part of the school’s choir.
By the time he was a student at Louisiana State University, he’d become interested in an advertising career. Indeed, after he was graduated and moved to New York, he was hired by Olgilvy & Mather, one of the best firms in the business.
And yet, both in New Orleans and New York, he’d make videos of himself in drag which were shown at some of the towns’ more progressive watering holes.
But during his LSU days, he made friends whom he describes as “gay and a lot of fun.” They introduced him to such classics as Auntie Mame, Little Me and Ethel Merman’s second autobiography -- the one in which she famously titled a chapter “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine” and left the rest of the page empty.
“I just wondered what a kid of theirs would be like,” says Roberson, recalling the thought that led to a persona.
To be frank, the Roberson family was starting to wonder what their kid was like. “I come from a real Southern Baptist family that’s extraordinarily religious,” he confesses. “My father died when I was in high school, so he never saw me as Varla Jean, but I don’t think he would have approved. My mother’s still alive, but even to this day, she has no idea what I do. Well, maybe she does,” he quickly amends. “She’s been to my website, but hasn’t said anything about it. There’s a lot of Southern Baptist denial going on. I don’t think she’d even like me to play Baba because the character is an alcoholic. And of my two brothers, one gets me and one doesn’t.”
Of course, Roberson long ago came to terms with the fact that everything would not be coming up roses for Varla Jean. “Not everyone gets my brand of humor,” he admits. “I did a show in York, Pennsylvania, and got the feeling that they felt sorry for me because they thought I was so bad. Somewhere between the coasts, irony is lost.”
The name Varla came from a character in Russ Meyer’s not-so-classic 1964 film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! “My LSU friends were responsible for my discovering that one, too,” he notes. And yet, a fan who started called him “Varla Jean” out of the blue and gave Roberson the idea for adding a middle name.
The Medium is hardly the first time that Roberson has played a genuine role. “I was in Lucky Guy -- the first one,” he says with a laugh, alluding to both the 2011 quick off-Broadway flop and the Nora Ephron play that Tom Hanks will tackle later this season. Boston has been especially good to him; he’s played Mildred Pierce in a musical version of the 1945 film classic. “And I had a big role in The Phantom of the Oprah,” he says, stressing the last word lest there be any Andrew Lloyd Webber confusion. “For that one,” he says with both justifiable pride and astonishment, “I got an Elliot Norton Award -- even though it was just a show in the basement of a leather bar.”
Even long-time die-hard Varla Jean Merman fans might not recognize Roberson if they saw him on the street. “I usually have as much of a beard as I can possibly have until I have to do a show,” he says. “Even then, I wait until the last minute to shave. I’ve done plenty of dress rehearsals while I still have my beard. Growing hair for me is really a vacation – especially for my chest. Luckily, my hair there is light, so I can use clippers to get it close. I’ve never had to use a razor on it, thank God.” For The Medium, Roberson’s chest will be spared, for his dress will hardly be a low-cut one.
Roberson admits that he’d be more scared of facing a New York audience if he hadn’t had that Provincetown success. After it, he received many messages on his answering machine that attested to his achievement. “Although,” he says, “I got many more phone calls this July for another reason: Ernest Borgnine died, and people were offering me their condolences on the loss of my father.”
— Peter Filichia