Inside the glamorous persona of Lady Rizo is a young girl having brunch at the Whale’s Tale 30 years ago, growing up in a Newport she fondly calls a “hippie theater community.”
That girl is now a world-class, award-winning performer, and after a year on tour, Amelia Zirin-Brown — known by her professional persona as Lady Rizo — will be back home in Newport this weekend with her latest production, “Losing the Lady,” combining stand-up comedy, music and performance art.
As the program title suggests, Zirin-Brown is letting loose of the moniker Lady, and setting off as Rizo in a new direction with her cabaret-style productions.
The Newport High graduate is the daughter of longtime Newport residents Ernie Brown and Deborah Zirin. She studied for years with Nancy Mittleman at Newport School of Artistic Movement, performed with Pacific Dance Ensemble and calls Mittleman her second mother.
This past year, Zirin-Brown took on the role of Madame ZinZanni with Teatro ZinZanni in Chicago, a dinner theater developed by former Cirque du Soleil performers and held in a spiegeltent — a large tent made of wood and canvas, filled with mirrors and stained glass, all in a “quite elegant” presentation combining cirque, comedy, cabaret and food.
She joined Teatro ZinZanni after years of writing and producing her own shows, deciding to be an employee for a while.
“I was excited to have the bottom line be on someone else,” she said.
Then, New York City’s Public Theater came calling.
“They have a beautiful cabaret space meant for music-based programs,” she said.
She premiered “Losing the Lady” in January at the Under the Radar Festival at Joe’s Pub, the Public Theater’s non-profit music venue. Now she is touring the Pacific Northwest and California with her new show. “Losing the Lady” addresses her decision to remove the “Lady” from her stage name.
“It’s more than that but also just that,” she said. “It’s losing an unnecessary title, a grasp for status.”
She has spent 15 years inside the Lady alter ego, separating her performer self from her real self.
“In a strange way, it’s a love letter as well as a warning about having an alter ego,” she said of the new show.
Her show explores and removes those layers of identity for the audience to see.
“For me, creating Lady almost was like having a dual personality,” she explained. “It almost took over.”
And signaling the change, her new show will be the first time in 15 years she has spoken her real name on stage.
“I felt like I was spending more time on stage than off — becoming Lady Rizo was taking up much more time,” she said.
“I wanted to be seen as more than a cabaret singer,” she added, noting she has written and produced two full-length albums and written six award-winning shows.
“Cabaret used to be seen as very cheesy,” she said, adding, “Now people are seeing that cabaret is an art form that has amazing intimacy and immediacy. I can inject something that has just happened with me or with the world.”
Zirin-Brown said she had always had in mind the idea of moving to New York City. When she made the move in 2004, she chose not to go through the rounds to get acting work.
“I didn’t want to grovel,” she said.
She said she wanted to make work right away, especially with Amber Merkens, her friend since they were babies, and who is now a dancer in New York.
“Amber and I were born and raised together, and it was like I had two mothers,” she said of Amber’s mother, Nancy Mittleman. “That’s a tribal thing that is lost in the nuclear family zeitgeist. And having two Jewish mothers who came from New York really influenced who I was.”
In New York, she worked with Merkens and former Newport residents and dancers Mariah Jones and Jennifer Harmer, and said the result was “pretty successful and so fun. I’m a collaborative performer — I grew up in a rag-tag hippie community theater,” she said.
Zirin-Brown said she was inspired in those years by the new burlesque scene – the art of strip tease reclaimed by a feminist point of view as Caburlesque, combining cabaret and burlesque.
The performances grew rapidly in venue size and she was asked to do a weekly show. She staged her first cabaret show in 2008 at Joe’s Pub.
“I used my skills as a singer and improv comedian, and my bachelor’s degree in theater, and I always sang on the side,” she recalled. “Eventually I started calling myself a singer, no longer an actress who sings.”
Zirin-Brown wrote much of her newest show during her Christmas visit to Newport.
“Part of ‘Losing the Lady’ involves recreating a side of myself that as an adult I had walked away from,” she said. “It was a very hard show to write. I was reading Kant and Jung. An amazing part of aging is accepting yourself and your past.”
She said she would not want to live at the coast again, feeling the need for a larger city, and now lives in Brooklyn. But she acknowledges that her yearning for fame — which she thinks is part of a yearning for connection — comes from being raised in a small community.
“I was raised in an incredible community that really fostered artists,” she said. “People know who you are. If I go to Fred Meyer in Newport, I have to add another 20 minutes to talk to all the people I see there. People yearning for fame and status are really yearning for community.”
But she is excited to bring her new show home.
“I talk about Amber in this show more than I have done before,” she said, noting that being born and raised with someone and continuing their friendship through the decades “is kind of like an automatic mirror. In a way, Amber has been my mirror.”
She also talks about her son, Tennyson, now four, and what goes into being his mother.
She is also happy to have carved out a profession that had not existed before, and to have found a way to practice it.
“I’m not only surviving, but thriving — that’s my new mantra,” she concluded.
Amelia Zirin-Brown performs in “Losing the Lady” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8 and Sunday, Feb. 9 at the Newport Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available at the Performing Arts Center box office or newportpac.tix.com. The production is presented by Pacific Dance Ensemble.