Sandra Bernhard: Sandyland (MCA Stage): Still fighting the good fight

Sandra Bernhard: Sandyland (MCA Stage):  Still fighting the good fight

Reviewed by Tom Lawler


In her latest production, Sandyland, Sandra Bernhard took the stage in a black cocktail dress and opened the evening not with a humorous story or two, but instead a cover of the Gordon Lightfoot classic, “If You Could Read My Mind.” Fronting her backing band, the Flawless Zircons, Bernhard played it straight, burrowing in on the song’s themes of regret, longing and regeneration.

Talk about setting a mood. This song resurfaced in the ‘90s with a sensational cover on the Studio 54 film soundtrack, and perhaps Bernhard was also thinking back to an earlier time when she stalked the streets of NYC as a larger-than-life pop culture figure, hipster and provocateur – from frequent saucy guest spots on Late Night With David Letterman and appearances in cult classics such as The King of Comedy and Hudson Hawk to her own one-woman shows and a recurring role on Roseanne.

Bernhard has been doing it so well and for so long, her influence is not hard to find. From the snarky celebrity takedowns of Kathy Griffin and the LBGT-affirming routines of Margaret Cho to even, well, the entire Bravo network (on which she often appears), Bernhard remains in control of a sharp, dangerous instrument: her mouth.

All is not perfect, alas, in Sandyland. After the opening song, her band left the stage and for the next hour, Bernhard caught us up on the latest dramas and misadventures in a string of effortlessly hilarious anecdotes including:

  • Having to reluctantly handle her own travel arrangements and navigate a “shit show” at the airport, since her tour manager (and former make-up artist) recently quit to pursue his make-up artist career full-time.
  • Chiding her young bandleader, Zak Taylor, who just made it into Chicago a few hours before the performance due to a flight delay.
  • Reporting that on her day off in the city she’s going to retrace the steps of Michelle Obama and hit some sales at Barney’s.
  • Exhausting herself flying back and forth from New York to LA to appear on ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, where she confided that “The pay is shit, but hopefully this puts me back on the map. A map to what, I don’t know.”

In other words, all is also quite right in Sandyland, and a charmed, supportive audience was in Bernhard’s camp all night, even when she dryly congratulated Chicago for being “really understanding fashion – and really knowing how to play it down.” A performer who somehow has been able to balance an edgy, self-lacerating comedy persona with fashion and glamour, Bernhard also found occasions throughout the night to drop names of some of her famous friends including Isaac Mizrahi, Karl Lagerfeld and Iman.

When Bernhard’s band returned, she sprinkled in more songs between the stories, including a personal song she wrote about her confused adolescence and even shoehorned in a rendition of “Jingle Bells.” Not a classically trained singer, Bernhard has nonetheless stuck to her guns featuring songs in all of her one-woman shows since 1988’s Without You I’m Nothing… and has recorded more than 10 albums to date. Her musical performances often, but not always veer into camp.

Bernhard ended Sandyland with a full-throttle rendition of the Roxette classic, “Listen To Your Heart.” Was this a heartfelt embrace of the song’s message of staying true to yourself and fighting the good fight or a knowing wink to some ‘80s cheese?  Likely a little bit of both, and Bernhard’s audience (and this critic) were charmed in either case.


Photo credit: Nathan Keay

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Edlis Neeson Theater (MCA), 220 E. Chicago Avenue

Written by Sandra Bernhard

Performances on Dec 5 and 7 at 7:30pm

Buy tickets at (Note: Dec 7 performance is sold out).


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