Sicks of One, Half a Dozen of the Other

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Comedy, Culture, Entertainment, Nightlife, Performance, Uncategorized

Ever since the dawn of the Stonewall age over forty years ago, gay entertainment has had its icons, in or even out of various stages of costume. This is not a reference to the Judys, Lizas, Barbras, Bettes, Chers, Madonnas and GaGas of mainstream pop culture, but rather those who rose up and conquered the so-called gay ghetto on their way to crossing over. The LGBT community has always embraced those folks, among them RuPaul, the Lady Bunny, Jim Bailey, Sylvester, the Village People, Craig Russell, and Sean Hayes. Joining this illustrious group are the Kinsey Sicks, an a cappella foursome currently being billed as America’s Favorite Beautyshop Quartet. Whether or not they opted to perform in perfectly-tailored drag and expertly-applied makeup, their vocal abilities would stand on their own for certain. But it is their combination of fashion, artistry and promotional ability that have propelled the group into marvelous success for the last several seasons. Originally founded in 1993, since that time they’ve had their own Off-Broadway show, a run in Las Vegas and international concert appearances, no less than seven CDs, and two appearances in feature films. And between now and the end of 2011, they’re scheduled to concertize in cities as large and small as Peoria, San Francisco, Boston, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and will continue whenever possible to produce the hilarious and gorgeously-crafted videos that have won them thousands of viewers on YouTube. The gals go by the names of Winnie, Rachel, Trixie and Trampolina, and each of them has a very distinct personality, clearly visible both on stage and in their aforementioned videos.

Offstage, however, each of the four gentlemen who comprise the group are equally fascinating. Ben Schatz, who embodies the role of Rachel, is a Harvard-educated attorney who was at one point an advisor to President Clinton about HIV issues. Winnie is played by Irwin Keller, also an attorney besides a linguist, and was the director of the AIDS Legal Referral Service of the San Francisco Bay Area. Actor-singer/designer Jeff Manabat is on board as Trixie, and has quickly become a much-loved figure by audiences, as much for his incredible counter-tenor as for the beauty and fashion he brings to the group. Rounding out the merriment is actor-singer Spencer Brown as Trampolina, who, as well as Manabat, were actually replacements for the original performers that played said roles. It was, needless to say, a joy for The Andrew Martin Report to have the chance to interview them while just embarking on their latest tour.

ANDREW MARTIN: What is it that makes you all so devoted to this? What’s the allure?

BEN SCHATZ:  I love the fact that we can create whatever we want; that we are a unique and idiosyncratic blend of things that have no right to appear together in the same performance. We are entirely responsible (or irresponsible) for our own content, and very few performers have that luxury. And people actually pay to see it! I still can’t believe that part!

SPENCER BROWN:  I really enjoy how we can adapt to wherever we are performing. Every crowd is different and we cater to all of them no matter where we are in the country, or world. I’m also quite fond of the fact that we don’t box ourselves in with our material. We can really do whatever we want. Whether it’s good or not is left to be determined.

IRWIN KELLER: There’s something about how these characters interact, and the bizarre content that ends up pouring innocently from their mouths that never ceases to amuse me. I’m the one on stage most likely to crack up, because I find what we do to be so funny. So even though I’m focusing as a performer, I sometimes slip into seeing or hearing a line or a facial expression the way an audience member would, and I’m a goner. Oh, one more thing; I love the way we upend audience expectations. We walk on stage and start singing the way we sing (I mean that in a good way), and you can see people’s faces lighting up as they realize they’re about to get so much more than they’d ever expected.

AM: I understand that Jeff joined a bit later, as a replacement for Trixie. And what made him such a natural to become the group’s beauty and fashion consultant?

JEFF MANABAT: That’s right, I did come to the Kinseys a bit later. Years ago, as an undergrad, I was a big a cappella nerd, and in fact was the musical director and member of The Men’s Octet of The University of California at Berkeley, which placed 1st in the national competition for collegiate a cappella during my tenure with them. I actually saw the Kinsey Sicks while I was in college and I absolutely loved watching (and hearing!) their wacky antics on stage. Unfortunately, I lost touch with the group, but after years of acting in theater, and by some many twists of fate, I was finally able to audition for the group. With a cappella and theater already in my bones, it was a perfect fit! I’m Trixie’s personal assistant/beauty advisor/vocal coach/acting teacher/counselor/masseuse! We all fill many roles in the group, and luckily we’re able to fill many of them that come naturally to us. Being the group’s fashion and beauty consultant, I would have to say my love for design inclines me to pay loving attention to this area of the group’s work, but honestly, I think Irwin and Spencer are pretty fabulous at it too.

IK: That’s nice of Jeff to say, but I’m pretty clueless in the fine points…well, even the broad points…of fashion and beauty. But it’s true that each new performer who has joined the Kinsey Sicks has brought unique skills. Ben and I are originals with the group, and developed our characters from scratch seventeen years ago. Jeff joined eight years ago and Spencer two years ago, and they had the burden of inheriting characters who already had much material written for them. And yet, Jeff’s Trixie and Spencer’s Trampolina are so different from those of their predecessors, and are both so brilliant.

AM: What is it like backstage when the group prepares for a show?

SB: Cat fights, wig pulling, heel kicking, it’s all routine. But seriously, it’s a very therapeutic process as the girls get ready. Painting faces while fine-tuning dialogue in the show, or figuring out how to deliver a joke to get the most satisfying result, is a big part of the process. Nobody is ever really resting when the four of us are together. We keep at it, and I believe that’s something you have to do to be good at your craft.

AM: What are some of the memorable stories of being on the road as a group?

IK: We’ve gotten lost more times than I could possibly count. We’ve had flights canceled, and had to drive through truly dangerous blizzard conditions to reach gigs. We’ve had luggage go missing on airplanes, and had to perform wearing dime-store sarongs. We’ve been burglarized in dressing rooms. We’ve had power outages, and had to do our show with the audience shining flashlights at us. Recently, the New York City police shut down our show because allegedly the venue had been serving drinks to minors. We were bummed; we wanted to be shut down on our own merit.

AM: Is your character also your favorite member of the group?

BS: While my favorite character to perform is undoubtedly Rachel…her absolute lack of boundaries gets a hell of a lot out of my system…I actually enjoy writing for Trampolina the most. It’s really a hoot (and surprisingly easy for me) to write dumb.

SB: Although I relate closest to the simple mind of Trampolina, I have to confess that Winnie is my favorite gal in the group. She has a sense of humor that really only she finds amusing and the other girls don’t. While she comes off as the most mature and responsible one, she has been known to do some rather shocking and disturbing things on stage, including revealing a brief affair with a seagull.

JM: Even though I absolutely love playing the glamorous and so-in-love-with-herself Trixie, I would have to agree with Spencer that my favorite gal is Winnie. She’s just so darn wacky and endearing. I can’t tell you how many times after so many years I’ve seen her do the same schtick at the end of the show, and yet it still makes me laugh! I’m joyful just thinking about her uninviting an audience member to join our mailing list or like our Facebook page (at www.facebook.com/kinseysicks) as only she can!

IK: Thanks, guys, for the votes of confidence. I do love Winnie. Her voluminous anxieties combined with her scant self-awareness can create some fun comedic moments that I love-love-love to milk.  Each of the girls makes me laugh in different ways. Rachel can terrorize an unfortunate audience member in a truly shocking and fun way. Trampy just has to do a facial expression and I’m gone. Trixie has a bit now in the show where she has a long interaction with a “secret love” in the audience; Jeff, who joined the group hating to do ad lib, improvises this section so brilliantly that I often can barely hold it together.

AM: You also each make a rare and all-too-brief appearance out of drag in your very popular “Touch-a Touch Me” video, which mocked the TSA. What was that experience like?

BS: It was horrifying for me to realize that, as Ben, I make the same bizarre faces as Rachel.  I had thought that I was far more restrained.

JM: Until that video was released (which can be seen at youtube.com/kinseysicks) I had no idea that my singing voice on camera sounded like the Cookie Monster.

AM:  Aside from the current tour, what are the other big plans for the group, either in the immediate or the future?

BS: We’ve been commissioned by Washington DC’s Theater J to develop an election year show, revolving around the concept of The Kinsey Sicks running for President.  We’ve had some great internal conversations about the show, and it’s time for some intensive song-writing. This equally excites and terrifies me!

Their ever-growing legion of devout fans is equally excited, but hardly terrified, by the prospect of what the future has in store for the Kinsey Sicks. The uninitiated should by all means visit their website at http://www.kinseysicks.com to keep abreast (excuse the pun) of all their comings and goings. And those already initiated will certainly continue to spread the word that this is an act and a vocal sound that simply shouldn’t be missed, on stage, screen or any other medium.

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