Campier and more serious update to ‘Color Me Barbra’ at Art Museum

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has allowed a raucous cabaret performance to be held in its gallery of 16th century art. The Bearded Ladies Cabaret will re-imagine “Color Me Barbra,” a television special Barbara Streisand shot at the Art Museum in 1966. The new performance, “Color Me Bearded,” will have a campy and transgressive edge.

In 1966, coming off the huge popularity of her 1965 TV special, “My Name is Barbra,” Streisand sought to strike gold twice. But she couldn’t get the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Philadelphia was her second choice.

“I remember how beautiful the museum was,” Streisand remembered. “We only had 36 hours to film the show while the museum was closed from Sunday night until Tuesday morning. But I was so inspired by the paintings that I couldn’t wait to inhabit some of their subjects and sing a song the way I thought the characters were feeling. I didn’t need sleep.”

The Bearded Ladies’ artistic director, John Jarboe, 30, was not alive in 1966 to see Streisand in a technicolor dress cavorting among sculptures ion TV, but now it’s on YouTube. “I found out when I came out,” he said. “When you come out as gay, they download all this information into your head.”

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Jarboe and his Bearded Ladies have previously performed in the Art Museum’s lobby — the Great Stair Hall — for its After 5 social events. He had the idea to bring his drag version of Barbra Streisand deep into the galleries, where the art is, as a more audience-interactive performance.

The hour-long show requires audiences to follow the performers through the wing of the Museum devoted to European art, 1500 – 1800. Jarboe will perform as Babs with a live band, joined by performers portraying curator, docents, security guards – even the art itself come to life – to sing and dance, and ultimately act out a story.

This version is both more campy, and at the same time more serious than the original Babs production: it includes numerous costume changes of retro 60s gowns, and mocking the white, upper-class patriarchy that the art, and museums, historically have catered to.

“We have a cast of over 30 performers, and as they move through the museum — as they get out of their frame — they become more and more queer, and more politically active,” said Jarboe. “A tension arises between Barbara and the art objects of the museum.”

That’s just what the museum wants. Emily Schreiner, the curator of public programs, had been looking to enliven the Museum galleries in the evenings, and a politically transgressive cabaret fits the bill.

“I think people want to come on an evening and have both deep and meaningful experience and light and whimsical experiences,” she said.

The performance, called Color Me Bearded, will be performed every Wednesday and Friday evening until February 10th.

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