Joseph Keckler

August 4, 2019 | By | Add a Comment

Some cabaret performers are born entertainers—there to give the audience a good time. Some are interested in educating their listeners or rousing them politically, while others are adept at moving people emotionally. Then there’s Joseph Keckler, who takes his listeners on rollicking adventures. You never quite know where he’ll lead you after you turn that next corner.

The tall, imposing singer has one foot in the world of opera and the other in downtown performance art—and he straddles the gap rather gracefully. His vocal range is reportedly more than three octaves, and his default voice is a deep, resounding bass-baritone. He also has a practiced falsetto. At times he produces a nasal sound, useful for certain character voices. Occasionally, he emits a haunting noise, like the howling wind through a stand of trees. Keckler puts all of this in service of a flamboyant personality.

At his recent show at Joe’s Pub, he came to the stage without introduction, singing a few lines from Tosca, then immediately plopped down onto the stage as if dead. He got up, sang another few measures of something else, and flopped down again. Wandering out through the audience, he sang in multiple languages, all the while continuing with the plopping and flopping. This presentation turned out to be a medley of operatic death scenes—a preview of a longer work he’s preparing. The bit was cheekily amusing, but it could have been even better had he found more varied and elaborate ways of croaking.

The next few selections were multimedia performances of his original material—arias and art-song pastiches, sometimes with a pop veneer. In the reverse of lip-synching, he sang along to his own digital image in beautifully executed music videos; the humor in these pieces was rooted in the discrepancy between the operatic thunder of his singing and the commonplace nature of his subject matter—as when he sang in sonorous tones about eating “too many low-grade cheeseburgers.” In one number with a Mozartian feel, he told of how, in an inebriated state, he once invited strangers from the internet to come to his home. No one showed, but he wondered whether they had been delayed and might still be on their way. In the music video that followed, he enacted this fantasy. The overhead screen was filled with scowling, clamoring figures dressed in an array of period costumes, there at last for the evening they were promised.

If you get such explosions of comedic absurdity from Keckler at times, at other points you get songs delivered in all sincerity. As I said before, he keeps you on your toes.

A published prose writer, he’s good at finding connections between disparate narrative threads and bringing them together to fascinating effect. In my favorite sequence of the evening, he wove a tale that managed to link (a) costumed characters in contemporary Times Square, (b) the 1907 New York City premiere of Richard Strauss’s Salome, and (c) the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

In a 2013 interview, Keckler suggested that he “would like to infiltrate the mainstream.” Some of the selections in the latter part of this show were the sort of indie-pop numbers that might lead him in that direction. He even performed a couple of worthy covers of other songwriters’ work: David Bowie and Reeves Gabrels’s “You’ve Been Around” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Herb Slotkin’s “I Put a Spell on You.” If he were to venture further into more-commercial territory, though, I can’t imagine him hewing too closely to the middle of the road.

While much of the music for the evening was prerecorded, a few musicians played live, sometimes augmenting the recorded sound. Most prominent among them were two gifted and assured artists: Matthew Dean Marsh (piano) and Dan Bartfield (violin). In the most touching moment of the evening, Keckler told the audience that Bartfield would soon be moving to Paris, then bowed to him and kissed him lightly on the head in a sort of benediction.

Keckler excels at creating an aura of mystery onstage, making people wonder just who he is and how far he’ll take things. If his program of songs and narratives were shaped and refined a bit more—made less like a disjointed concert and more like a crafted piece of cabaret—his mystique would become even more alluring.

Joe’s Pub  –  July 27

Category: Reviews


About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. In addition to reviewing for, he contributes regularly to and Other reviews and articles have appeared in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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