Lots of people like Joni Mitchell, but probably not as much as John Kelly does.
On Friday night, he opened a weekend run of "Paved Paradise," his brilliantly witty homage to the singer, with a sold-out two-hour performance at Dance Place. Thanks to the Washington Performing Arts Society's continuing promotion of the delightfully offbeat, Kelly was Joni, singing and playing her best-known compositions with affectionate verve.
Kelly, who began what would eventually become "Paradise" in 1984 at Wigstock, New York's legendary Labor Day drag fest, nailed Mitchell's toothy, goofy smile and Laurel Canyon hippie-isms (occasionally pausing between songs to cry briefly) with eerie accuracy. Heck, in a slinky black number, Kelly even looked better than Joni.
Flanked by guitarist Mark McCarron playing Vincent van Gogh ("He has an excellent ear") and keyboardist Zecca Esquibel as Georgia O'Keeffe (Mitchell's other painter muse), Kelly, a polished countertenor, climbed through "The Circle Game," "Chelsea Morning" and "Big Yellow Taxi." "Help Me" became a karaoke replete with hilarious "interpretive" dance, and "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" actually rocked a little.
Despite one clunker ("This Flight Tonight"), Kelly was so convincing that it was easy to forget it wasn't actually Joni Mitchell singing "Down to You" and "Blue" or the moving interpretation of "Little Green." The show's biggest triumph was Kelly's ability to elucidate the singer's quirks and indulgences without crossing the line into mockery. That quality made "Paved Paradise" a striking tribute from one accomplished artist to another.