Knit Wit

Christine Lavin will be in stitches with her fans at Trenton’s Mill Hill Playhouse.

By: Susan Van Dongen
   Garrulous singer- songwriter and humorist Christine Lavin is looking for a few good men. Her Feb. 12 performance at Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton will feature Ms. Lavin’s own kind of "man show," where she’ll be on the prowl for the best-looking guy in the audience.
   This is a woman known for twirling a baton onstage, hosting an impromptu knitter’s support group in her dressing room before shows and stalking Barry Humphries’ drag diva Dame Edna. Some people might call Ms. Lavin unstable, but hilarious is a better description.
   The manhunt, which she dreamed up as a spoof on female beauty pageants and conducts in every stop of her tour schedule, starts with Ms. Lavin putting on a miner’s hat and scoping out the seats for a male specimen. The winner is invited on stage and crowned with a custom-made hat crafted from that day’s newspaper — usually the sports section.
   Ms. Lavin makes her creations carefully, placing the particular date prominently so the hunk hats become time capsules, even collectibles. Speaking from her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Ms. Lavin reflects that they might even be on some future version of Antiques Roadshow.
   "One lucky man will be crowned ‘Mr. Mercer County’ and his life will be forever changed," says Ms. Lavin with a laugh. "It’s totally fun, there’s nothing scary they have to do. The crown is made up of a newspaper and I spend at least two hours making each one.
   "I love to watch ‘Antiques Roadshow,’" she continues. "I have this vision of my ‘crowns’ being passed down through the generations. I can imagine the antiques guy, 100 years from now, doing the assessment, saying ‘and this is an original Christine Lavin.’ Everything I put on the crown is there for a reason and usually there’s a theme. Even though it looks like a collage, everything is carefully thought out. "
   Ms. Lavin, who has been entertaining her fans with her offbeat, erudite songs for about 20 years, says she plans a lot of audience-interactive things for her performances.
   "Just nothing that will send them into therapy," she says. "I tend to draw such smart audiences, the interaction makes it more interesting."
   She’s also been schmoozing with listeners before her shows, inviting anyone who knits, crochets or does cross-stitch and other hand sewing to hang out in her dressing room.
   "I got bitten by the knitting bug a couple years ago and I took to it so quickly," she says. "I’ve found that knitters are Type-A personalities. These are people who don’t want to just sit around — they want to be doing something. I thought to myself, ‘If there are other knitters in the audience waiting to see the show, I’ll bet they’d like to knit instead.’ It’s been really fun for me. People come to the shows who’ve been knitting for 30 or 40 years, so I’ve learned a lot of new stitches."
   Ms. Lavin says the knitters are not just women, either.
   "It’s all over the map," she says. "For some men, sewing and knitting is not considered feminine. There was one man in his 70s who joined us. At another show we had a guy who said he and his wife took a Lamaze class and he knitted a uterus for the teacher."
   With 28 albums to her credit, Ms. Lavin is a major force in the contemporary singer-songwriter world. Her latest is The Runaway Christmas Tree (Appleseed Records,
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), her first recording for family audiences. She is a founding member of The Four Bitchin’ Babes, four singer-songwriters — including Suzzy Roche — with whom she toured extensively in the ’90s. Ms. Lavin also created, directed, produced and taught performance courses at the Martha’s Vineyard Singer-Songwriter Retreat.
   With a relentless schedule, last year Ms. Lavin still managed to squeeze in appearances on Good Morning America and The Today Show, as well as CBS Sunday Morning, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. She is currently the guest host of Sunday Breakfast on WFUV public radio in New York.
   She has won numerous wards, including two New York Music awards, five ASCAP composer awards and a NAIRD award — kudos from the independent side of the recording industry. She’s received commissions from Lincoln Center and has written songs for the off-Broadway productions Sex, The Musical and A … My Name Will Always be Alice. In addition to her musical achievements, one of Ms. Lavin’s humorous essays on knitting has been included in Knit Lit, Too (Random House, January ’04). She also wrote her own off-the-wall obituary for Remember Me When I Am Gone (Adler Press, March ’04), edited by Larry King and including self-composed obits by Mr. King, Oprah Winfrey and other luminaries.
   Her articles and essays also have been published in The Washington Post, The St. Petersburg Times, Inside Arts and numerous other newspapers and magazines. The piece in the St. Petersburg Times — titled "Stop Me Before I Edna Again" — explored her realization that she was "addicted" to Dame Edna.
   "I became addicted to the ‘Dame Edna Show’ and saw it more than 20 times," Ms. Lavin says. "I brought my friends so many times people didn’t want to come back with me. I thought my business manager would wonder why I was paying for so many tickets to this one show on my credit card, so I started to buy them with cash. That’s when I realized I had an addiction. I’ve since become friends with Dame Edna — Barry Humphries — who thought I was a stalker, but then realized I was an acolyte."
   Musically speaking, Ms. Lavin is currently putting the finishing touches on a live album titled Sometimes Mother Really Does Know Best (Appleseed). "It’s coming out on Mother’s Day," she says. "(The title track) is a song about a mother and teenage daughter fighting. She wants an eyebrow piercing but the mother says no. Then the mother says she wants a facelift and the teenager says no, and it goes back and forth from there. The audience always goes for the really dark ending.
   "The disc itself will have minimal lettering on it," says Ms. Lavin, who is participating in the design of the CD package. "I want to get it as shiny as possible so it can double as a compact with tiny, tiny letters that say ‘you look fabulous.’"
   Although her songs are not necessarily political, Ms. Lavin’s music and vivacious onstage presence caught the attention of one of the candidates for the Democratic presidential primary race.
   "I was doing a concert in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., last year and John Edwards was in the audience," Ms. Lavin says. "I asked if people were aware of the North Carolina senator who was rumored to be thinking about the presidential primary. In fact, he announced the very next day that he was going to run. He was so pleased by the performance he asked if I would like to do some fund-raising."
   She says she had a fleeting fantasy of Sen. Edwards making it all the way to the White House — where she would become "his Marilyn Monroe."
   "What I like about him is that he has such good taste," Ms. Lavin says."
Christine Lavin performs at the Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, Feb. 12, 8 p.m. The concert is part of the Passage Theatre’s Fourth Annual Solo Flights Festival. Tickets cost $22. For information, call (609) 392-0766. On the Web: www. Christine Lavin on the Web: