Review: Sounds and Styles Playfully Collide in ‘Only an Octave Apart’

“Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be normal?” Justin Vivian Bond, the doyenne of downtown cabaret, asks the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo a few songs into their show, “Only an Octave Apart,” at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

The gag, of course, is that both Bond and Costanzo — whose pristine and ethereal voice has been heard at venues like the Metropolitan Opera and the Palace of Versailles — are utterly singular artists.

Bond, 58, is a veteran and pioneer of alternative live performance, polished in appearance but satisfyingly rough in voice and manner, a diva whose response to having seen it all is both a yawn and a wink. Costanzo, 39, who will return to the title role in Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” at the Met this season, has demonstrated a voracious appetite for mashing up disciplines. Perhaps that is in response to the limited countertenor repertoire, “music written before 1750 or after 1950,” as he has said.

Their teaming up came about by chance and circumstance, they banter in “Only an Octave Apart.” Costanzo recalls seeing one of Bond’s shows at Joe’s Pub and professing instant fandom; Bond remembers thinking Costanzo was hot. They became fast friends, and their relationship led to the St. Ann’s performance, which takes its name from a TV special the soprano Beverly Sills and the actress Carol Burnett recorded at the Met in 1976, in a campy meeting of so-called high and low culture.

Conceived with and directed by Zack Winokur, “Only an Octave Apart” feels like something between “Honey, I Shrunk the Opera” and oversized cabaret. Or an operatic highlight reel wedged into a freewheeling stage revue. Or an improvised set of concept singles. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. The uneasiness of its hybrid form is part of the point, and reflective of its stars’ convention-inverting talents.

A ventriloquist-style number inspired by “Singin’ in the Rain,” for example, plays off their bucking of gendered expectations: Costanzo sings from behind the curtain while Bond lip-syncs, aligning his countertenor with Bond’s high-feminine presentation. Then they switch. (“Act butcher!” Bond barks.)

The show finds both obvious humor and a dissonant beauty in combining sounds. Under Thomas Bartlett’s brilliantly agile music direction, nimble arrangements by Nico Muhly and Daniel Schlosberg flit seamlessly from plucked strings to erotic disco beats. The stars’ voices at times collide to strange, glorious effect (as in a languid take on Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March”); or they playfully intersect in ways that throw their differences into sharp relief.

Bond thrills most in haunting ballads that animate the eerie exigencies of isolation (“Me and My Shadow”) and the melancholy in holding onto hope (“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”). Cutting a glamorous figure beneath worshipful lighting by John Torres, Bond issues an enchanting warble, its gravely depths echoing with comfortable wisdom.

Costanzo also dazzles in solos that showcase his rich yet delicate voice, which glints and swoops like intricately painted blown glass. Before performing Lizst’s arresting art song “Über allen Gipfeln Ist Ruh,” Costanzo explains that it’s about despair, from poetry that Goethe is said to have carved into stone as he died alone.

If the show speaks to the moment, it does not seem by design. The organizing principle of non sequiturs (“We’ve sung about flowers and water, now how about leaves?”) is charming to a point, though ultimately comes at the expense of assurance and momentum.

Bond, a seasoned stage personality, is at ease riffing off the cuff and ribbing an insider crowd — but feels rather far away peering over the nine-piece orchestra, with a hand shielding the glare. Costanzo’s element is vocal storytelling; he’s less at ease, however, as a co-host, even though he’s clearly game.

Their self-mythologizing repartee (an avant-garde legend and an opera star walk into a bar …) keeps the audience at a guarded remove, while the songs yearn for connection. It’s a paradox starkly rendered in fabric by the first of Jonathan Anderson’s costumes, velvety-soft, floor-length gowns that jut out at harsh angles, like front-turned bustles whose bell curves have been replaced by blunt machetes.

Bond and Costanzo are extraordinary artists, though it’s not until the night is nearly over that they allow us to see them as vulnerable ones, too. “Only an Octave Apart” was meant to be a live show, then an album; the pandemic forced them to work in reverse. They poured themselves into creating this odd and beguiling record, they say, over the worst of the past year.

Now onstage, they seem electrified, their nerves raw and frayed, dazed to be in communion again — in other words, more like the rest of us than they’d dare to let on.

Only an Octave Apart
Through Oct. 3 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn; 718-254-8779, stannswarehouse.org. Running time: 90 minutes.

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