“Alien/Angel” is a stage retrospective of a performer lost too soon

Devin Bannon plays avant garde performance artist Klaus Nomi in a show at Cafe Nordo. (Photo credit by Bruce Clayton Tom.)

Klaus Nomi opened his mouth to sing and all eyes turned to him.

All eyes probably already were on the performance artist, who rose to fame in the 1970s. His costumes looked like what alien eyes might make of Western evening wear. His dress shirt, bow tie and black tails all fitted, but they all stretched out much larger than understood limits.

Nomi’s entire act — from his bridging of pop, theater, experimental rock and classical music —  was about stretching understood limits.

Seattle’s Devin Bannon will star in a theatrical resurrection of Nomi, who died in 1983 of AIDS, in “Alien/Angel.”

Bannon learned of Nomi about eight years ago when a friend posted a video about the artist on Facebook.

“My first impressions were that he was a magnificent creature, and what a tragedy it is we lost him (and so many others), but really my fascination was with his incredible talent and persona,” Bannon said. “Now, some years older myself, and much further into the story, I find myself thinking much more about the human being he was. Shy, sensitive, quiet; such a contrast to the vibrant character he plays on stage.”

Nomi began life as Klaus Sperber, born in Immenstadt, Bavaria, Germany, about a year and a half before the Nazis surrendered. He grew up in Essen in what was then West Germany. Essen, a manufacturing city, wasn’t big on the arts, nor especially hospitable to gay men.

After working as an usher for an opera company and performing at gay clubs in Berlin, Nomi made his way to New York City around 1972 and spent the rest of his life there.

He bumped along singing in NYC cabarets. His classically-trained voice astonished even the hippest audiences. The cabaret host had to vouch for him and affirm that what folks just heard was not a lip-synch or some other kind of trickery.

He became part of the 1970s New York City performance art scene, and appeared on national television singing backup for David Bowie for “The Man Who Sold the World” and “TVC15” on Saturday Night Live.

Nomi sang in a countertenor’s range, the plaintive high notes of a female soprano and he sung, much of the time, from a woman’s point of view.

For Bannon, who has been classically trained in voice since age 10, reproducing Nomi’s singing proves the hardest thing in restoring the artist, in a dramatic sense, to life. Bannon took some liberties.

“His range does run higher than mine, and in that department, he’s about as high as it goes for men,” Bannon said. “I can sing all of his songs in the original keys, but not in my fullest voice. So some songs are brought down a step or two to give them peak performance. That’s in service to them. After all, I want to put on the best show I can.”

Nomi adored the classical repertoire, but also recorded pop songs from “The Twist” to “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead.” He released several albums through the same record label as David Bowie and wrote an opera for himself.

But sadly, as his career was on the rise, in 1983 Nomi died from AIDS. He was one of the first U.S.-based celebrities to die of the disease, in an era when the disease was just being discovered and still poorly understood. He was 39 years old.

The first Klaus Nomi song Bannon ever heard was from his unfinished album, which was released more than 20 years after his death.

“About 8 years ago… on Valentine’s Day, a friend of mine posted his song ‘Valentine’s Day’ on Facebook. I’d never heard anything quite like it, and I’d never heard of Klaus Nomi, though I’d seen his image before. I went down a wormhole and inhaled his entire discography and that got me thinking… Maybe there’s a show in here.”

Bannon’s wormhole included looking for a show about the singer.

“I looked through everything I could find on the subject, and searched to see if anyone had created a play or theatrical show based on his story, and I found many other projects, including musical odes, dance tributes and a wonderful documentary, but no play. His story and music and personality and image seemed like a natural fit for the stage. Then it was simply: If no one’s done it, why not me?”

“Alien/Angel” is told in three short acts, each a combination of live music and dance. Bannon, as Nomi, is backed by a band including musical director Annastasia Workman and multi-instrumentalist Kathy Moore. Dancers Chloe Albin and Christopher Sweet also provide backup.

Actor Heather Refvem plays three different interviewers in three different countries in three different accents. The interviews are based on televised interviews.

The four-course Café Nordo meal served with the show is inspired by the personal recipes of the singer, who loved the kitchen almost as much as he loved the stage.

Bannon said his director Keira McDonald was instrumental in the development of “Alien/Angel.”

“In some ways, I feel like I’m the athlete and she’s my coach. Plus, she’s hilarious.”

The show promises to be enlightening, informative, and fun. But Bannon reminds us this is a sad story in its arc, an amazing talent cut down much too soon.

“In one of his final recorded live performances on his European tour, he sings Purcell’s ‘The Cold Song,’ which is really a song about wanting to return to the stillness of death,” Bannon said. “Knowing that he was already sick at the time, this performance takes on a tragic double-meaning, and a profound beauty. This is an angel who is half-gone.”

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