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Worship this!

Sandra Bernhard rants on heroes and other pop-culture matters

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The Roxy, June 22 -- She thrives on the element of surprise. Unlike most contemporary entertainment, Sandra Bernhard's on/off-Broadway and tours fly far enough under the mass-marketing radar that they remain unpredictable.

Her latest musical/spoken word extravaganza, "Hero Worship," extrapolates on themes she's explored in earlier shows such as "Love Machine," "Without You I'm Nothing" and "I'm Still Here ... Damn It." In front of an enthusiastic (sometimes too enthusiastic) over-21, largely gay male crowd, Bernhard -- aided by a crack five-piece rock band -- fired off insightful shots at media targets like a sniper from a bell tower.

Opening with a bombastic version of Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero," the singer/author/comedian strutted onstage like a combination Mick Jagger/Steven Tyler caricature, intentionally aping the very rock stars she lambastes. She then launched into a non-stop hour-and-a-half diatribe, skewering both easy targets (Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Billy Joel) and more difficult contemporary cultural icons (Arabs, fire fighters and policemen, Bush, benefit shows) with an edgy, infectious glee.

Initially focusing on the post-9-11 hero adulation and what she feels is the near-nauseating jingoism it's sustained, Bernhard acknowledged her conservative Southern surroundings by admitting she'd probably get lynched for uttering these comments outside the venue's doors. That built the us-against-them camaraderie with her fans, which kept the nearly sold-out house riveted even when the focus of the extended monologue occasionally wandered off course.

Working her shtick with few written notes or props, Bernhard -- wearing jeans and a tight pink T-shirt adorned with the word "trashy" -- capitalized on her uncanny knack for digging into pop culture's nooks and crevices, and exposing its inherent phoniness. With a gleeful, brazen finesse that avoided the knee-slapping, ba-da-boom, leadup/payoff pattern of most stand-up performers, she veered into more nuanced shadows. Many in the admiring audience didn't absorb the more understated irony behind Bernhard's barbed comments. Mixing extemporaneous material about her trip into Atlanta, a dicey rental vehicle and the shabby hotels she's stayed in, along with scripted songs and rants spiked with occasional but hardly inappropriate profanity, the show cruised on a freewheeling acerbic charm uncommon among her few peers.

She effortlessly meshed extended tirades on Britney Spears' Vegas special and Pepsi commercial, the evils of technology ("Blow all the shit up"), along with the dulling sheen of recent magazine ads for clothing designers, with her baited political assaults and even bits on child raising. The evening climaxed with a swaggering, startlingly sincere version of Elvis' "Kentucky Rain," and finally ended with Bernhard stripping down to a camouflage-colored bra and panties for a teasing, gyrating "Little Red Corvette," and a jazzy, improvisational medley that incorporated bits of "God Bless America," "Summertime" and "Dixie."

Few performers walk this self-imposed tightrope of irony, humor, satire and sincerity as effectively as Bernhard. She's never disrespectful or cruel for the sake of easy mockery. And deep down in her sarcastic soul, she values the aspects of American life she derides, while understanding her part as a cog in the same wheel. Diffusing an intrusive audience member by describing a typical encounter with an inebriated fan in a post-concert club (Bernard claims she doesn't drink so she can better observe human behavior) who ends up calling her a "cunt bitch," her own vulnerabilities are uncovered in ways most performers would never allow.

Unlike Dennis Miller -- as close to a male counterpart as you'll find -- few witticisms were aimed at the hipper-than-thou few. Rather, she dismantles the faux-glitz of pseudo stars like Joan and Melissa Rivers, as well as politicians like Bush and Ashcroft, by exposing their foibles. In the process, Bernhard reveals the philosophical wrinkles and scars hidden beneath the mask of pop-culture makeup that, like her clothes, she efficiently and hilariously discards.

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