John Kelly has a thing for Joni Mitchell.
Since 1984 he has been performing "Paved Paradise," his musical homage to the veteran singer-songwriter. For the show, Kelly dresses in drag, complete with flowing flaxen wig, and he performs Mitchell's songs straight, with a little patter in between. "It's really a concert, but it is scripted to a degree," he says. Kelly strums a guitar and dulcimer and shares the stage with a pair of musicians who call themselves Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O'Keeffe, nods to two of Mitchell's inspirations.
A singer-actor-painter-performance artist, Kelly, 45, has carved out a niche creating solo and ensemble multimedia works. Many of them focus on one person; a previous Kelly performance piece was devoted to the Austrian painter Egon Schiele.
With Mitchell he saw another chance to embody someone he admired as an artist. " 'Amelia' is one of the great art songs of the 20th century," Kelly says of a composition from her 1976 album "Hejira." "All these chicks that are out there now, they are all children of Joni." Even after hundreds of performances, he says he's not sick of Mitchell's songs.
Kelly grew up in Jersey City listening to his older sisters play her albums and he became a fan. "It was my first exposure to lyricism and poetry and sexy songs about love and traveling," he says. Years later, when he debuted "Paved Paradise," Kelly did it without benefit of singing lessons; he just listened to Mitchell's songs over and over and over to get the hang of them.
A few years ago at Fez, a Manhattan club, she came to one of Kelly's performances. "I was braced for a lampooning and I didn't expect to be so touched," Mitchell told the New York Times soon after. "I cried in two places." At the end of the show, she presented Kelly with a dulcimer. Since then, Kelly and Mitchell have crossed paths sporadically. He attended her birthday party shortly after the Fez concert and last summer he participated in "Joni's Jazz in Central Park" along with musicians Chaka Khan and Duncan Sheik. For that event, he says, he performed "as a boy. I don't want to be identified as the Joni Mitchell drag queen."
Kelly had an active imagination as a child, and as he grew older had a hard time deciding whether he wanted to dance, paint, sing or act. After stints with American Ballet Theatre and Parsons School of Design, he decided to do all of them, together in some shows, separately in others.
"It's not that I'm an art slut and always have to prove something to myself by doing something new," Kelly says. "It's just that it's all related."
He started out performing in New York clubs like the Pyramid, eventually graduating to La MaMa and the Kitchen, venues known for encouraging offbeat artists. These days Kelly has a supporting role in a musical version of James Joyce's "The Dead" on Broadway, a first for him. "Broadway was never a goal of mine, but it certainly legitimizes me in people's eyes even though I've been working for twenty-odd years," he says.
But whenever he's low on funds, he dusts off "Paved Paradise." Last summer he performed it in Provincetown, Mass., for two months.
Apparently there are more than enough Mitchell fans out there who want to sing along with Kelly's falsetto on "Both Sides Now" to keep him busy.
John Kelly performs "Paved Paradise," a presentation of the Washington Performing Arts Society and Dance Place, tomorrow through Sunday at Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. $15. Call 202-269-1600.
To celebrate tomorrow's deadline for submissions to the 10th annual Rosebud Film and Video Festival, Channel 33 is hosting a "Deadline Dropoff Party" from 6 to 8 p.m. The Rosebud competition is open to all film and video works produced or first released in the past two years. Filmmakers must live in the District, Virginia or Maryland. The free event takes place at Arlington Community Television, 2701-C Wilson Blvd. For information, call 703-524-2388 . . . The Hemphill Gallery is sponsoring a talk, "Investing in Art," Saturday morning from 10 to 11:30. The event takes place at 1027 33rd St. NW. For reservations, call 202-342-5610. The event is free . . . Another Third Thursday takes place tonight, with downtown galleries and museums offering extended hours from 6 to 8. A tour of the galleries starts at 6:30 p.m. and meets in the Discovery Channel Store at MCI Center, Sixth and F streets NW. For more information call 202-661-7582 or visit www.downtowndc.org.
CAPTION: John Kelly, as Joni Mitchell on the cover of her album "Hejira," above, and as himself. He performs "Paved Paradise" this weekend at Dance Place.