The Spirit of Whitney Houston Leads a Tour Down Wilshire Blvd.
Tanja M. Laden Whitney Houston (Cliff Hengst in unconvincing drag) gave a tour of Wilshire Boulevard to two audiences last Saturday. Why? It's not completely clear.
That is, at least, the impression left by the ending of It's Not Right, But It's OK, a performance art piece by Cliff Hengst put on by Machine Project for the Getty's initiative Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. The program was a bus tour from the Beverly Hilton, where the late diva supreme was found dead in Feb. 2012, down Wilshire Boulevard, as led by Hengst, "possessed" by Houston's spirit. Yet Hengst, perhaps showing how committed he is to performance art, concluded the tour by running out into MacArthur Park to the strains of Houston's hit song "Run to You." Hengst/Houston never returned -- instead, without a word from anyone in charge, the bus simply returned to the Beverly Hilton.
The conclusion was in the same spirit as the rest of the tour: mostly confusing, at times brilliant, and every so often in poor taste.
Hengst started out as himself -- a veteran of one-person exhibitions -- giving a tour of Wilshire Boulevard's architecture and history. But then, in an impromptu performance of Weezer's "Beverly Hills," Hengst began riffing and ad-libbing, much like Houston might in a cover of the song. He claimed he has no idea what came over him.
Soon enough, the transformation became more permanent. To the strains of Houston's cover of the National Anthem, Hengst threw on a gold lamé sheet (the term "dress" would be generous) and a truly pitiful wig to become Whitney Houston herself. It's worth noting that Hengst has fairly prominent facial hair. Clearly, convincing drag was not the point.
The bus tour continued, with Hengst/Houston speaking and singing about her return to the world -- and, bizarrely, delivering more history about Wilshire Boulevard. In some cases, this made sense: During a spiritual moment, Hengst/Houston lip-synched the religious "I Look to You," and launched into the intro of "I Will Always Love You" from The Bodyguard when gazing at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
At other times, however, the music seemed incredibly disconnected from everything else: Zooash's mashup of "How Will I Know" with Robyn's "Dancing On My Own" was played at a moment where Houston was supposed to be reflecting on a memory of her first tour, making a remix an odd choice.
When the music stopped, things got dicey. A running gag about how many Subway locations are on Wilshire had some fun payoffs (choice sung line: "Subway, where salted meats go to die"), but otherwise, Hengst mostly read facts about buildings, only occasionally tying in relevance to Houston.
More than anything else, that was what kept It's Not Right, But It's OK from being the campy blast it so thoroughly wanted to be. Perhaps because of the program's tie-in with the Machine Project's event series "Field Guide to L.A. Architecture," Hengst had to shoehorn in references to buildings that Houston just wouldn't care about, often at the sacrifice of some great performance bits -- a crazy, drug-fueled monologue/performance of "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" was cut short because yet another building had to be pointed out.
Still, there was plenty to learn on the tour, both about Houston and Wilshire, and there were some really harmonious moments. For example, the El Rey Theatre, itself a landmark, was also the location of Houston's first tour, opening for Luther Vandross. And if nothing else, the tour had great comedy, especially when Hengst would veer off-script and interact with passers-by.
Plus, at moments, the juxtaposition of Houston's life-after-death and the architecture of Wilshire worked. The former location of the Ambassador Hotel was highlighted, and drew an interesting parallel to the Beverly Hilton, where Houston died, as the Ambassador, of course, was the site of Bobby Kennedy's death. (The use of "I Have Nothing" here was particularly effective.)
The Ambassador itself died as well, as did so many other locations Hengst/Houston highlighted. Other locations that didn't get torn down either faced death (The Wiltern, twice) or were dramatically changed (too many locations to list). Houston may have passed just over a year ago, but she left an L.A. that was much different than she lived in -- just as the Houston who left us was much different than how she would likely want to be remembered.
That theme felt half-baked, though, as did the rest of the show. A one-day-only engagement, It's Not Right, But It's OK didn't have to be a program that would sell tickets for years -- the audience was going to buy tickets if they were interested in the source material, not on the actual execution of the program. But Houston's death is still fairly recent; using her memory as a tie-in for a tour of Wilshire's architecture at times felt in bad taste.
Case in point: the ending, where Hengst/Houston runs into MacArthur Park, a location known for its strong gang presence and drug-dealing. The tone is unclear: Are we supposed to laugh at the fact that Houston has "returned" to the drugs and shady dealings that colored the latter half of her life? If so, that's the kind of dark joke that, were Houston still alive, would probably get big laughs if converted into a standup bit. But as the conclusion to what at many points felt like a tribute to the musical icon, it felt tacky and unnecessary.
That's what made It's Not Right, But It's OK neither right nor OK. Neither fully camp nor a true tribute -- nor even a proper education about Wilshire -- it just never truly came together.