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Stage Review

The raunchy revelations of ‘The Book of Merman’

Jeffery Roberson gets under the skin of Varla Jean Merman in “The Book of Merman’’ at the Art House in Provincetown. Jeffery Roberson gets under the skin of Varla Jean Merman in “The Book of Merman’’ at the Art House in Provincetown. (Rex Bonomelli)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / August 11, 2011

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PROVINCETOWN - If you’re not familiar with Varla Jean Merman, nom du drag of the actor Jeffery Roberson, introductions are in order: The self-described love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine, she’s approximately 6 feet tall (depending which cunning heels and elaborate Ann-Margret-red hairpieces she’s sporting at any given moment) and has an operatic voice ascending to a high F-sharp. (That’s “Queen of the Night’’ territory, and also a favored range for the occasional adorable hiccupy giggle.) She has the impeccable manners of a Southern debutante, combined with a taste for raunch that would leave the most jaded of libertines sputtering. If you like the kind of off-color comedy that makes you laugh till you choke, Varla Jean is your kind of girl.

Accordingly, very little of what Merman/Roberson accomplishes in her/his latest revue at Provincetown’s Art House, “The Book of Merman,’’ can be adequately described in a family-oriented newspaper.

When, for instance, Merman - sporting a glittery hot-pants version of a sailor suit - belts out “When the Fleet’s In,’’ she’s not talking Navy. Brace yourself for an Oprah-style bonanza of door prizes, followed by a series of gross-out recycling recommendations. Plus you may just have to avert your eyes during a film clip that features a tender postcoital adieu overrun by bedbugs. Varla Jean, though ever the romantic, is invariably unlucky in love.

Still, she remains hopeful, sharing her hard-won expertise on how to track down “los latinos muy caliente’’ in an introductory video commercial for the “Manhunt Institute of Technology.’’

A half-dozen taped segments are woven into the live act, following a format much like that of the solo show Roberson performed at the Theater Offensive’s Out on the Edge festival in Boston in ’08. Notable appearances in the interim include a 2010 Norton Award-winning turn as Christine Daaé in the Gold Dust Orphans’ “Phantom of the Oprah’’ and this spring’s tragically truncated off-Broadway run of “Lucky Guy,’’ starring Varla as a preening, hyper-competitive country music star, a role she was clearly born/created to play. The reasons this show foundered are hard to fathom, but there’s no question that it was overshadowed by a certain Broadway hit.

Bitter? Heavens, no. Still, Varla didn’t hesitate for a second in riding “Mormon’’ coattails with her new show’s title (which, she claims, has already prompted a cease-and-desist letter she’ll blithely ignore). To any audience member expecting a tie-in to the Broadway phenomenon, she says, “I have one word: sucker.’’

Varla Jean’s initial concept was to frame the show as an autobiography: “I know I have a book in me - the radiologist said so’’ (cut to X-ray slide with assorted X-rated flotsam). That proving too much work, she slapped together this quirky variety show, which ranges from a “Bea Lilly pastiche’’ involving a surprise aerial stunt to “On the Fjord,’’ a mashup of Wagner - complete with horned helmet - and Jennifer Lopez.

The show will probably evolve in the course of its six-week run (if audiences don’t warm to the “Foreskin’’ singalong, she allows, “It could be cut’’), so true fans might want to plan on repeat visits. As for Varla newbies, why wait to join the fold? With any luck, you - like one lucky customer on opening night - may find yourself welcomed with a sloppy, lascivious kiss.

Sandy MacDonald can be reached at sandy@sandymacdonald.com.

THE BOOK OF MERMAN Revue by Jeffery Roberson and Jacques Lamarre, with additional material by Ricky Graham and Jefferson Turner

Produced by Roberson and Mark Cortale

At: Art House, 214 Commercial St., Provincetown. Tickets: $30-$35. 508-487-9222, www.ptownarthouse.com