Close this search box.

well established and here for you

independently owned and operated since 1977

Top That!

Varla Jean Merman Celebrates 20 Years in Provincetown

by Steve Desroches

In the summer of 1997, Varla Jean Merman came to Provincetown for the first time as the opening act for Lypsinka, the drag superstar who was playing to a sold-out house at Town Hall. For a drag queen to sell out the town’s largest venue is a huge deal, especially back in the 1990s. And for Varla, to share the stage with one of the biggest acts of the day was a huge opportunity. However, Varla soon learned her place, as the stage was only for Lypsinka. Varla was to perform on the floor in front of the stage, so for many in the audience, all they saw was a bouncing red wig lit by a spotlight.

What felt like an inauspicious debut, actually turned into a star-making performance, as it led to a summer-long booking for 1998, and Varla Jean Merman has gone on to become the reigning queen of the scene for two decades in Provincetown. It’s all very Valley of the Dolls, with all the camp, but not the tragedy (and Lypsinka is way nicer than Helen Lawson). Jeffrey Roberson, the man under the ginger wig, laughs at his humble beginnings in Provincetown as he embarks upon his 20th year as a headliner here. It seems a bit like a shiny blur that someone who has become not just an integral part of the Provincetown performance scene, but a major influencer has been here for 20 years. It all happened so fast, the way time does when you’re working hard and having fun.

“It’s just so weird,” says Roberson. “When I first came here I was 28, and now I’m 49. It’s just so weird. It’s so bizarre to have aged as a woman. But I think Varla and I started out as the same person when I started, but I grew up and she didn’t. Your behavior at 28 is one thing, but when you’re pushing 50, it’s not so cute to act the same way. But Varla can.”

This summer, as Roberson celebrates 20 years of Varla in Provincetown, he’s part of two shows at the Art House that showcase why this character has remained so vibrant and relevant all these years. He presents a re-written revival of the show Under A Big Top, featuring Gerald Goode on piano, and The Whining, a Stephen King inspired spoof co-written and co-starring San Francisco drag superstar Peaches Christ. As the name would suggest, Under A Big Top is a circus-themed show, as well as a delicious double entendre, both eliciting anticipatory glee, unless you are a top or hate clowns. But even then, a Varla Jean Merman show can flip flop anybody with its sophisticated dark humor and joyous bacchanalian energy that first enchanted audiences at the Post Office Cabaret, before moving to the Art House.

In recent years, Roberson has addressed the issues of these turbulent times in sublime and sly ways. Shows like A Little White Music and Bad Heroine playfully, yet effectively, took on white privilege and racism as well as the rights and treatment of women in American society, particularly in light of Trump’s behavior and statements during the 2016 election and Hillary Clinton’s Electoral College loss. Performers in Provincetown are asked to walk a strange tightrope in their shows, as the town has a reputation for both its political activism and its abundant opportunities for complete escapism. What people expect from a show not only changes from night to night, but from seat to seat. This year Roberson thought it would be best to provide a respite from resistance creating a space of laughter to recharge after continually infuriating and heartbreaking news cycles. Thus he completely rewrote Under A Big Top, the show he did the summer after September 11th, when he correctly predicted audiences needed a break from reality.

“It’s mindless entertainment, so it has nothing to do with politics,” says Roberson. “It’s why I did it the first time. People needed an escape. I can’t do any more politics. Let’s go back to good old sexual innuendo. It’s what I’ve based my whole career on.”

Roberson not only knows how to ride out political waves and maneuver good times and bad, but also changing tastes, while remaining true to his character development and performance aesthetic. When Varla Jean first hit town, things were very different. There were no cell phones and no social media, so a drag queen’s success really relied on word of mouth, which is what made Provincetown such an important destination for outsider stage artists. Audiences come from all over, so it’s a bit like going on a national tour while staying in one spot. But while technology has helped in some respects, there is also a noticeable shortening of attention spans. Some jokes or bits in his shows took five or six minutes, now, at best, Roberson says, you have two before you see faces illuminated by screens.

There is also the phenomenon of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which Roberson says has certainly hit Provincetown, but not at all to the extent it has in the rest of the country. Provincetown audiences love drag, but have very discerning tastes, so an appearance on television does not guarantee success in Provincetown. Roberson and his roommate from the summer of 1998, the legendary Jimmy James, changed the landscape in this town away from lip-synching drag queens to live singing, as well as presenting new shows each summer, each more elaborate than the last. It’s helped to attract other big talents, and in turn, has made drag and other underground entertainment an attraction unto itself along with our beaches and nightlife. As Roberson looks back on the past two decades, the future for Varla Jean, at least in Provincetown, is a bit murky with the news that this is the last summer for the two theaters at the Art House, as plans to expand the 1620 Brewhouse were announced last week. Roberson says anywhere he goes, he won’t do so without his longtime manager and producer, the artistic director of the Art House, Mark Cortale. So as Cortale looks for a new venue to continue his production company, Roberson can’t say what 2019 will bring for Varla Jean Merman continuing in Provincetown.

“It’s hard,” says Roberson. “I don’t blame them, the Brewhouse. I don’t blame them at all. It may be their dream. But it’s foreboding for the arts in this town, and for the film festival. The arts always gets pushed out. Artists get pushed out. You see it happening all over the country. Performance spaces lost to a Starbucks or something. It’s a big loss. There are a lot of acts here. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”

Varla Jean Merman presents Under A Big Top Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m. through August 31. The Whining, starring Varla Jean Merman and Peaches Christ, runs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., July 6 through September 8. Both shows are at the Art House, 214 Commercial St., Provincetown. For tickets ($35 general/ $45 VIP) for either show, go to the box office or visit For more information, call 508.487.9222.

Recent Posts

Sign up for our Newsletter

Scroll to Top

Sign up for our Newsletter

Graphic Artist

Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

Keep in touch

Fill in your details and I will get back to you in no time.

Phone: + 1 508-487-1000 ext 6
[email protected] 14 Center St. Provincetown MA, 02657