Thursday, March 26, 2009

Rock Softly Carry a Big Shtick


Seattle Times arts writer


"You guys ready to rock ... softly?"

That question came from singer-dancer-comedian Mark Siano at a jampacked gig at Seattle's Triple Door nightclub in January.

And the answer, apparently, is: Yes, Seattle is ready.

Siano and his six accomplices, the Freedom Dancers ("five beautiful women and one buff gay dude"), have acquired a feverish cult following around town over the past two years with their cheesy dance routines, their even cheesier costume changes and Siano's mocking yet impassioned interpretations of AM radio hits of the 1980s and '90s.

The troupe also has two Bollywood numbers in its repertoire ("the soft rock of the East"), along with several Siano originals: the Kama Sutra-inspired "We Did It Like This, We Did It Like That," the keyboard ballad "Lady Heart" ("I've got to touch your lady heart / Before I touch your lady parts") and a glorious paean to the complications of media-age romantic communication, "Up in Your Inbox."

The 32-year-old Siano is, in short, a very funny guy who, with a little help from his friends, has been reducing Seattle to giggles since the mid-1990s.

Some locals will know him from The Habit, a sketch-comedy troupe as sharp and gifted as they come. Others may have encountered his one-man show, "Pinko Holiday," about his trip to the Beijing Olympics, where he managed to display a political protest sign in the women's basketball arena.

Lately, Siano has curated and hosted a series of Seattle cabarets. The latest, "The Clandestine Cabaret," happens next Friday and Saturday at The Little Theater on Capitol Hill. In the meantime Siano and the Freedom Dancers are working up a big show, with more original tunes by Siano, for The Triple Door in October.

During a recent interview at his studio apartment on Capitol Hill, Siano talked about The Habit, soft rock and other vital matters.

The habit of laughing

Siano was born in Chicago but considers Seattle his hometown. He attended the University of Washington and by age 19 had formed The Habit with fellow students Ryan Dobosh, John Osebold (now of the band/performance outfit "Awesome"), Jeff Schell, Tommy Smith, David Swidler and Luke Thayer. The original name of the troupe paid homage to scientist Humphry Davy, inventor of nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Legend has it that Davy once inhaled himself into a coma — from which he emerged a few days later, still laughing.

"We loved that story so much, we called ourselves Humphry's Habit — the habit of getting together and laughing."

In 1998, they shortened it to The Habit. After a greatest-hits show at Seattle's Bathhouse Theater in 2002, they headed for Los Angeles, hoping to get their own TV series. That didn't happen, and by 2006 a downcast Siano was back in Seattle.

"I was going to stop performing in theater and comedy," he recalls. "I was convinced that I was through with it."

He took a day job in a medical clinic where, unlikely as it sounds, the seeds of his future soft-rock "spectaculars" were planted.

"The music that you can listen to — you only get one choice, really. And that's soft rock. It's Warm 106.9 or nothing."

Siano, ever the "jokester," started parodying the clinic's bland musical fare and got "a lot of laughs" from his co-workers. Then he tried out the same routine at some comedy-club open mikes and elicited a similar response.

"So that," he recalls," became my thing: Hey, I'm a soft-rock guy. Different guys, they like hard rock, or they like rap, or they're hip-hop. I'm kind of a soft-rock guy."

What started as a joke became a serious urge to get back onstage. "I caught the bug all over again," he says. "I wanted to sing. I wanted to make people laugh."

No more "wild" shows

Siano's big soft-rock break came when he got a call from local nightclub Re-Bar, asking if he could put together a show in three weeks: "At first I was freaked out. Then I thought: You know, if I cobble together all my old material, grab a bunch of my friends, start a little dance troupe — yeah, I can put on a show in three weeks!"

From there, Siano's new act took off.

The dance routines — class them under the Hectic Calisthenics School of Pop Choreography — are collaborations between Siano and his fellow dancers. Their inspirations include a lot of 1980s videos and repeated viewings of "Flashdance" and "Dirty Dancing." Siano admits that none of them are formally trained dancers. But, he says, they're stage naturals who "can really shake it."

The performer's vocal background consists of doing musicals in high-school and college. Shortly after graduating from the UW, he got gigs at the Village Theatre in Issaquah, but he worries that he may have gotten "too wild" there: "The last show I did, they didn't give me any direction. They just said, 'Just sing the song and get a few laughs.' I got a little too creative. I went out into the audience. I scared the people in the music pit. Once I left the building entirely and came back in through a different entrance. I hope one day they'll have me back. I think I have to convince them that I've grown up since."

As for his new show's song selections, they're more than just a joke to him.

"I know to a lot of people who come to see it, they enjoy it because they think that music is funny. I enjoy it because I really love that kind of music. I enjoy people who sing full voice," he says, "and aren't afraid to say a few cheesy things. Because love can be 'cheesy' — it's OK."

Soft-rock, he notes, with its "soaring" melodies also gives you a chance to show off: "It's not so much about being clever as it is about just being as beautiful as you can."

Still, he's not unaware of certain insidious aspects of the genre.

When I mention recently hearing Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" — a raw slice of psychedelia when it hit the airwaves in 1967 — being played in the hallways of a medical-dental office as though it were off some E-Z listening compilation, Siano pronounces in oracular tones: "Soft rock is a black hole. Anything that isn't deliberately metal will eventually get sucked into soft rock."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com