BY DAVID NOH | "It'll be fun!" the boyfriend enthused as I finally gave in to his annual plea and okayed the idea of a gay cruise. Like many of you out there, I was a tad traumatized by the florid brochures, featuring insanely leering, muscle-bound party boys hoisting Cosmos, not to mention the ubiquitous inclusion of that sole Asian, as if to say, "Yes, we welcome aboard our 'just as hot, large money-earning' yellow brothers, as well!"
Hell, what did I know? It turned out to be one of the top vacations of my life. Imagine 2,000 gay men (and 19 women) aboard Celebrity Cruise's Infinity, sailing from Rio for Carnival to Uruguay to Buenos Aires, a final voyage for this particular package route. We were even all famous, as this flotilla de maricons made CNN and every local newspaper, with passengers being interviewed at several stops. Crowds came out to watch us disembark.
And, yes, there was much more to be had than hardcore partying to disco thump-thump 24/7.
Pam Ann dazzled in the big theater with a full two hours of her flight attendant madness. Also genius -- the rubber-faced, utterly convulsing Jessica Kirson and Poppy Champlin, who was like an edgier, funnier Ellen Degeneres, who once gave the comedian an icy reception when Champlin had the temerity to go up and introduce herself at a party.
I heard one of the absolutely greatest voices ever at Rick and Carla's Cabaret. Carla Bordonada, a 25-year-old Puerto Rican from Miami, is a sumptuously lovely singer with an instrument to match, and performed audience requests, ranging from "Defying Gravity" to "La Vie en Rose" (in perfect Piaf-accented French) to "Besame Mucho" (mine) with astonishing virtuosity and pitch-perfect, glowing tone.
Rick Leonard, a veteran of top New York saloons, played and sang with a jaw-dropping range and satiric charm. Catch both at their regular club gig in Miami when down there.
The tea dances and theme parties ('70s, '80s, Dogtag, Masquerade, Tribu, White) were a gas, with the White Party being one of the best fetes I have ever attended on land or sea. The costumes were dazzling (boy, the boys were ready for this one!), the overall vibe was one of deliciously sexy bonhomie, the fabulous lighting by masterly Guy Smith streaked the night skies with lime lasers causing all aboard a nearby liner to yearn to jump ship and join us, and DJ Abel smoked for six-plus solid hours, his name thrillingly lit up in neon on a Punta de L'Este skyscraper across the water.
Everything peaked when he played Madonna's "Don't Cry for Me," in honor of our morning's sailing into Buenos Aires.
There was the requisite touch of high drama with what will go into urban legend as the Prince Albert Affair. The lesson - genital jewelry and pool drains are not a good mix. This, along with the usual unfortunate, drunken demos, flamboyant lovers' spats over formal dinner, and sex under the stars with Deck 13 hook-ups.
Carnival in Ipanema was wild, but too many cruisers had their pockets picked (cargo pants are a decided no-no). Paraty is the most adorably preserved colonial town, while Florianopolis and Punta del Este (South America's divine Riviera) boast two of the finest gay/nude beaches in the world. Montevideo has architecture worthy of Haussmann's Paris and they rolled out a special gay carpet for us, opening their famous antique flea market a day earlier just for us. Rainbow flags suddenly appeared everywhere.
Buenos Aires remains one of the great, gay-friendly cities of the world, and I thrilled to see a gorgeously preserved Jacques Fath gown at the Evita Peron museum, which possesses the most charming cafÃ© in town.
Back in Gotham, I was welcomed home with a plethora of music only our town can offer. "Welcome to my apartment," said John Lloyd Young, greeting us at his nifty Lincoln Center "American Songbook" cabaret debut (February 23). "I furnished it with Ikea and you know I pay a lot of rent because look at this view!"
And, indeed the moon-dominated Rose Room vista down 59th Street was the perfect backdrop for Young's concert of what I like to call "The Good American Songbook," i.e., radio hits from the 1960s, which provided the percolating backdrop to my childhood. Nattily attired Rat Pack-style, Young opened with Lou Christie's "Lightning Striking Again," which showed off his endearing "Jersey Boys" falsetto and set the melodically nostalgic tone.
Beautifully rendered versions of "At Last," "Cryin'" and "Spanish Harlem" followed, and he camped it up with a Tina Turner "Private Dancer" imitation that was as delectably wrong as his cover of "Young Girl," Gary Puckett's overwrought ode to underage diddling. He cited his adoptive mother in the audience, fully decked out in "Jersey Boys" gear, and touchingly dedicated a song to his birth mom, who died when he was two. The adoring crowd, largely consisting of his Broadway fan base, ate it up like pasta fazool.
Surely, k.d. lang possesses the greatest voice in pop music today, and she blessed us with her caressingly warm pipes, alternately maternal and sensual, at her Lincoln Center debut concert on February 28. Her luminous sound of supreme womanliness is all the more startling in juxtaposition with her resolutely butch appearance -- barefoot and in vest and tie, she resembled Joaquin Phoenix, the young Alec Baldwin, and Elvis himself.
Lang sang mesmerizing selections from her new CD, "Watershed," as well as stirring interpretations of Neil Young's "Helpless," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and, of course, "Constant Craving." Of her brilliant five-piece band, she said, "I like to surround myself with handsome young men. You figure out the rest," and later, picking up a banjo, commented, "I'm taking banjo lessons because it's such a chick magnet." "It's not the banjo!" an adoring dyke screamed, as another one presented lang with a sumptuous bouquet.
I've loved Freda Payne's "Band of Gold" ever since hearing my high school crush, Blane Nagata, sing it in the locker room, freshman year. If a straight Japanese boy singing a black woman's song in Hawaii all those years ago doesn't signify as "crossover," I don't know what does. But who knew that Payne was also the definitive interpreter of the Ella Fitzgerald songbook, as she proved at Feinstein's at the Regency (February 26)? She had chops to spare, encompassing the ineffable Fitzgerald sound, smooth scatting and all, and even managed to look like Ella at moments.
Backed by an all-black combo of solid pros -- some of whom have been with her for 37 years -- the ebullient Payne was, in old jazz parlance, a solid sender, who glowingly referenced many great music names in her comprehensive account of Fitzgerald's career.
Despite an announced cold, Marcello Giordano rose to lyrical tenor heights in "Manon Lescaut" at the Met (February 20), with often electrifying results, outshining an able but miscast Karita Mattila. This production, designed by the great Desmond Heeley in 1980 for Renata Scotto, is the Met's most exquisite, with the Act Two boudoir set a symphony of tarnished silver and one accent of acid green. You realize that there is nothing better than masterfully done, hand-painted scenery, and Heeley, a devotee of legends like Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler, has a genius way with the brush.
I will not hear more beautiful singing this year than Johan Botha and Renee Fleming in "Otello" ( February 22). RenÃ©e Fleming's Desdemona is her best portrayal and she made her last act scena fairly tremble with the purest vocal ravishment.
And there won't be a better operatic ensemble cast this year than the one Eve Queler assembled for "La Sonnambula" (Carnegie Hall, February 27). Forget Castro's brother, the Cubans to watch these days are Eglise Gutierrez and Elizabeth Caballero who, in the rival roles of Amina and Lisa, displayed, respectively, ping-filled coloratura verve and rich mezzo drama. Dmitry Korchak's ringing tenor was beautifully matched with his perfect, bridegroom-on-a cake looks, Brian Kontes lent strong baritonal support and the eminent Ferruccio Furlanetto filled the hall with his astounding basso resonance.
Immerse yourself in the Gallic manner with Film Society of Lincoln Center's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (through March 9). Emmanuelle Devos is divine in "Ceux Qui Restent" (March 6, 8-9), one of the very best love stories in recent years, with Vincent Lindon, who gives a romantic performance to stand with any of Bogart's or Charles Boyer's. Claude Lelouch's "Roman de gare" was another highlight, a delicious thriller with Fanny Ardant as a memorably imperious mystery writer squelching her ghostwriter, a mesmerizing Dominique Pinon. My new favorite actress, Audrey Dana, illuminates the film as a born loser, Huguette, and has a jolie laide expressiveness and deep soul similar to Devos.
Other noteworthy screenings included Noemie Lvovsky's "Let's Dance" and Cedric Kaplisch's "Paris." "Let's Dance" tells about the aging process, with lovely acting by Jean-Pierre Marielle, Sabine Azema, and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, the sister of France's new First Lady, former supermodel/adventuress, Carla Bruni, who just married Nicolas Sarkozy. "Paris" is another of Kaplisch's multi-charactered, kaleidoscopically disarming odes to his magical city.
At the opening night party at the French Consulate, I hung with the legendary Melvin Van Peebles, who told me he's just finished his film, "Confessions of an Itchy-Footed Mother," shot on video around the world. Always, bracingly real, Van Peebles said he's going to bypass the usual venues for distribution: "I've financed it myself and, with my name alone, I can get it into any festival I want on my own, and don't have to deal with any greasy mothers who say they'd like to 'handle it.'"
Fluent in French, Van Peebles told me he lived in Paris in the '60s and worked as a crime reporter for Le Nouvel Observateur and edited a humor magazine, Hara Kiri. And yes, my man was there for the May 1968 student revolts.
Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com,/i>.