Jack of Hearts, Queen of Clubs

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:12

    Look out Kiki & Herb, there’s a new fictional, dysfunctional duo in town. They have their own lounge act and they mean business. The business, of course, that is show business. It’s been a long road for the two dreamers, Pepper Cole and Johnny Niagra, known collectively as Ca$hino. They took their best shot at Vegas, but the rejection and the backstabbing drove them to despair. Pepper hit the sauce and grew despondent, announcing what many a financier has recently proclaimed, “We’re losers and we can’t get a job!” Then inspiration struck.

    Returning to their hometown of Los Angeles, they began touring the suburbs in their Ford Taurus, going door to door, performing in living rooms for online gamblers who couldn’t pull themselves away from their virtual slots. By entertaining one lonely housewife at a time, they found their niche and a new confidence. So Johnny packed his keyboard, boxed his “sexy beast” blond wig and flew to New York. Off the bottle but afraid to fly, Pepper followed on a Greyhound bus. Now they’ve taken up shop a block away from the Port Authority, at the Laurie Beechman on Sunday nights in November.

    Paying homage to their history of house calls, each show opens with one of four 30-minute videos that chronicle a particularly unfortunate outing or missed opportunity during their time out west. There’s a run-in with a terrifying Liza Minnelli impersonator and a marketing plan that centers on Valpak coupons. Filmed between 2000 and 2004 and filled with celebrity cameos, Left Coast gags and marvelously cruel bouts of failure, the works share the same sensibilities and Schadenfreude satisfactions as Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

    Then Pepper and Johnny hit the stage for an hour of ad-libs, an audience raffle and the most energized and hilarious musical time capsule to be found in the city.

    The Ca$hino songbook is composed of both classic Broadway musicals and power-pop ballads from the 1970s and ‘80s; two great sounds that sound great together. The duo’s best offerings not only combine the two genres but also meld their DNA. Yul Brenner metaphorically waltzes with Freddie Mercury in a medley entitled “The Queen & I,” while “Annie” finds the common ground between “A Hard Knock Life” and Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass.”

    Pepper has the pipes of Patti Lupone, the comic wherewithal of Carol Burnett and the social blindsight of Amy Winehouse. She belts, chicken-dances and oozes insecurity all at once. Meanwhile, Johnny is cool as a cuke behind the piano, keeping Pepper from falling off the deep end while taking suggestions from the audience to create instant compositions, or scat singing what it sounds like when doves cry.

    In real life, Pepper is veteran singer-actress Susan Mosher. Having spent time in Vegas and L.A, on stage, in film and on TV (notably, a recurring role on Showtime’s The L Word), Mosher moved to Manhattan to perform on Broadway in Hairspray. She can still be seen there, eight shows a week, until the production closes in January. But in this more intimate, downstairs venue, she not so much lights up the stage with Pepper as she ignites a blazing basement fire that transfixes the crowd. It’s a bravura performance.

    Her co-star and pal for over 20 years, John Boswell still calls L.A. home and has a bio as eclectic as his arrangements. He’s written music for General Hospital, served as music director for Judy Collins and has released eight albums of inspirational instrumentals. Tune into the “Soundscapes” cable music channel, and you’re more than likely to hear one of his works. Boswell’s Ca$hino compositions are uniformly clever, endearing if you grew up listening to Heart and Neil Diamond, inanely gratifying if you know your musicals; and at times they’re unexpectedly transcendent. In a mash-up of Bette Midler and “Fiddler on the Roof” (yes, “Midler on the Roof”)—when Pepper launches into “From A Distance,” while striding like Golde being vanquished from the homeland—there is a sudden poignancy. Conversely, when they meld “Dust in the Wind” with the 1967 classic “Windy,” the tune climaxes in such total silliness that a ridiculous and all-encompassing truth cannot help but crack up the audience: “Everyone knows we’re dusty.”

    -- Ca$hino Nov. 23, Laurie Beechman Theatre in the West Bank Café, 407 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 212-695-6909; 9:30, $15/$20. --