Last Saturday, after enduring the slow-cooker heat dome that had us all hiding wherever an air conditioner could be found, I slipped out of Philadelphia on a NJ Transit train bound for fabulous Atlantic City, thinking of the beach, the ocean, and a little evening diversion at Bally’s Park Place, where Ike Avelli, an unabashedly out, irrepressible comedian, was set to perform. By the time the train arrived, I was eagerly ready to dive headlong into the Atlantic Ocean, as even the creosote of the track ties was simmering. On my way across the streets of the Monopoly board, I thought about Ike, whose career has come a long way since he did a spur-of-the-moment stand-up routine at a company Christmas party ten years ago. Since then, Ike has toured the country doing 50 Shades Of Gay, the very show I was finally going to see that night. I’d enjoyed Ike’s other performances, most notably his Christmas show last December, Dear Santa, Define Good, Love Ike, a campy, ribald variety show that was a quintessentially New York gay comedy, wrapped with a bow of drag and tongue-in-cheek songs. Ike had me chuckling to myself long after I’d left the theater. Never having seen 50 Shades, though, I looked forward to the evening’s diversion.
I soon found myself on Atlantic City’s fabled Boardwalk, among the salt water taffy vendors and the iconic Rolling Chairs, and I bounded cheerfully onto a surprisingly uncrowded beach. The water was refreshingly delightful, and I lingered in the surf, swimming back and forth and sampling the eye candy — all the wonderfully bare bears, chubs, daddies and muscle boys were out in abundance — before I realized how low the sun was getting in the sky. Almost reluctantly, I trudged out of the ocean. It would soon be curtain time. Ike’s brand of comedy is definitely risqué — with a title like 50 Shades Of Gay, it almost has to be — but Ike delivers it with the kind of irreverent joy only he can muster up. After a quick bite at Johnny Rockets just off the Bally’s casino floor (surprisingly, no tourist-trap prices: everything on the menu was reasonable!), and a pre-show Mudslide in honor of my friend Moya, I duly presented myself at the Blue Martini comedy club, and I was soon seated in the front row on the aisle, in what turned out to be a packed house.
Aside from the unusual layout of the club — the bar is directly in front of the stage, which made for some awkward moments during the show, as guests kept blocking in my field of view ordering drinks (business was good) — the venue had the air of a Broadway joke joint, with good stage lighting and a sophisticated ambience. 50 Shades has really grown into a full-fledged theatrical production, which is now sponsored by Uberlube and the tax law firm of E. Martin Davidoff. Ike kicked things off with a hysterical parody of Go Tell It On The Mountain (Ike’s getting; Mexican dick!), which engaged the audience right from the start. Ike’s co-stars also captivated the house: vocalist Coby Koehl sang soulfully from the depths of his heart (it showed!), and drag divas Viki Villainess and the very devil-may-care Ari KIki had people (literally!) dancing in the aisles all through the show. These three troupers added just the right seasoning to Ike’s self-deprecating sketches, which ran from side-splittingly hilarious, to poignantly touching on some raw truths about gay life in America today.
Audience participation is a big part of an Ike Avelli show, and 50 Shades is no exception. Ike picks three volunteers from the crowd, and they must — like RuPaul’s drag racers — lip sync for their lives. One of the volunteers, broadcaster Jay Watkins, brought the house down when, instead of lip-syncing, he merrily launched into a striptease, flinging his cap and T-shirt into the seats below, and letting the music move his alluringly beefy frame. Of course, the audience made him the winner. Ike rounded out his show with video snippets during the costume changes (Ike’s costumes are as outrageous as they wanna be, too), and an ’80s Flashback, complete with a Barbra Streisand wig. He earns top marks as the journeyman comic he is, and you can see him tonight at NYC’s Triad Theater, where he’s doing a satire of Grease called Lube: A Gay-Sical, with his co-stars Tym Moss, Isaac Ryckeghem and Sam Oz Stone.
After congratulating Ike on a job well done, I hoofed it back to the depot for the roll home. As the train chugged through the steamy South Jersey darkness, I realized the day trip and Ike’s show had been just the tonic I needed after a wearying week of blast-furnace heat and workaday drama. It was great to watch a performer who does what comedy should do — make you forget the cares of the world in a lovingly delivered bouquet of laughter. Do catch Ike whenever, wherever you can. It’s absolutely worth the trip.