Becoming Babs: St. Louis Park voice instructor has fun portraying Barbra Streisand

St. Louis Park resident Melody Mendis performs in character as Barbra Streisand. (Submitted photo)

A St. Louis Park voice instructor loves Barbra Streisand so much she tries to become her, on stage at least.

Melody Mendis began to study Streisand more than two years ago but did not decide to perform in character as the famous singer until this year. She appeared as Streisand at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Uptown before portraying the singer in five Minnesota Fringe Festival shows at The Crane Theater in Minneapolis.

She will return to the Bryant-Lake Bowl 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, at the venue, 810 W. Lake St. in Minneapolis. She will re-enact scenes from films in which Streisand appeared and sing some of her hit songs.

After her initial Bryant-Lake Bowl show sold out, Mendis said she thought, “I think I’m in this now. I think I might have gone down the rabbit hole.”

She credits Rico Estrada, the frontman of the cover band Boogie Wonderland, with giving her the idea. Mendis has performed gigs with the 1970s-themed disco group.

“I think he gave up on me because it took me way too long,” Mendis remarked.

Mendis spent time studying Streisand’s songs and mannerisms. She recorded herself and watched herself in a mirror to try to deliver the most authentic performance she could, she said.

“I actually started sounding like her, and it really freaked me out,” Mendis said.

She compared herself to a “super-fan” in terms of her knowledge of Streisand’s life, ticking off a list of Streisand accomplishments and facts like the celebrity’s preference for gowns for sleeping rather than pajamas. Mendis said she hasn’t gone so far as to begin to imitate Streisand in her own life, though.

“I feel I need to preserve a little bit of Melody in there because then it just gets into a weird place,” she said with a laugh.

She acknowledged that on stage she would be a bit different than Streisand, despite her interest in mimicking the star. After she sat in on a friend’s performance at Vieux Carré in St. Paul, Mendis said she hesitated to put on her own show.

“Are people going to look at me and try to compare me to Barbra – because I’m never going to be Barbra,” Mendis said. “No one can be Barbra except for Barbra. So I’m always going to have a little bit of Melody, which is great because I need to be me as well. But it was just like how far do I go with this?”

For her Fringe Festival performance, Mendis found inspiration from movies starring Streisand, such as “The Way We Were,” “Yentl” and “Funny Girl.” She picked out audience members to appear as Robert Redford on stage. She recalled that one of the audience members she selected joked that he no longer had hair comparable to Redford’s famous look.

“We made a little bit out of it,” Mendis said. “It was so cute.”

Her one-woman show at the Bryant-Lake Bowl focused on Streisand’s television shows and specials, including “My Name is Barbra” and “Color Me Barbra.”

Finding the right style

Mendis said she grew up with Streisand’s “Guilty” album in the 1980s. While that album remains Mendis’ favorite, she appreciates many of Streisand’s works and the star’s personality.

“I love that she’s such a lion in the way she goes after things and pioneers as a director, as an actress, a singer,” Mendis said. “She’s done all of those things. I just admire her for it and how she just reveals this gorgeous vulnerability that is just so captivating and beautiful.”

Mendis learned more about Streisand from reading books like “Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand” by William J. Mann.

Mendis noted that Streisand had to be “as tough as nails” to succeed in a male-dominated entertainment industry. However, Mendis noted that Streisand’s personality also varied over the years, from her younger days in clubs in New York City and Mendis’ hometown of Detroit to national attention after appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and success performing Broadway tunes.

“She’s such a chameleon,” Mendis said. “She’s a hilarious comic. I think it’s interesting how she’s so funny, but the songs that resonate the most are the dramas and about the strong, independent woman. But she has all these layers, and that’s just so fascinating. It’s like you’re peeling back an onion.”

Fellow tribute artists who work in Las Vegas advised her to pick the Barbra that Mendis most liked to mimic, she said.

She added, “A lot can be said with a wig change and a costume change. It’s just like theater when you’re doing tech and you have all your costumes on, all of a sudden it becomes real. It’s almost like it becomes a second skin and you fully envelop that character.”

Some Streisand fans want to hear more obscure tunes while others want to hear favorites like “Memory.”

Mendis said, “I’m still in a big process of trying to make my audiences happy and finding the Barbra that I resonate with the most to give the best performance. It’s not so simple.”

She likened her decision to perform as Streisand to the “baby steps” Bill Murray’s character references in the film “What About Bob?”

“That’s kind of what helped me get out of my two-and-half year rut,” Mendis said. “People were like, ‘So, when are you doing Barbra?’ and I was like, ‘It’s coming up – she’ll be out soon!”

Mendis said she has enjoyed performing in small spaces.

“I love to see my audience and engage with them,” Mendis said.

She has also interacted with audience members by appearing on stage as Streisand as the singer of a fictional cover band called “Babz.” Mendis sings pop songs like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Royals” but in a Streisand style. During choruses, Mendis encourages audience members who know the songs to join in. Since Mendis is originally from Detroit, she joked about the idea of performing an Eminem song in a Streisand manner.

“I just need to do the mic drop,” Mendis said with a laugh.

Teaching and learning from others

In her more serious work, Mendis runs a home-based studio in which she teaches vocals to students “from 9 to 99.” The students show off their singing skills in showcases at The Depot Coffee House in Hopkins.

Mendis does not take the lessons she teaches as seriously as those she had as a child, though.

“Growing up, I was a classical vocalist, and I felt so much pressure to be perfect and exacting in recitals,” Mendis said. “I didn’t want to put that pressure on my students, so I call them vocal showcases.”

Students in their 60s and 70s sing along with kids 12 years old or younger, she said. The younger kids are often fearless, serving as models for adult students who may be more self-conscious, Mendis said.

“You can still be playful and just put yourself out there and have fun with it,” Mendis said.

As a tribute artist, Mendis said she has to remind herself of the same lesson.

“I just need to remember to breathe and stay inside my body and just let these things organically come out because I’ve studied it, and I’ve just got to trust my knowledge and trust my body that it will come out,” Mendis said. “The stage is not a time for self-analysis and to try to fix things. That’s where it gets a little daunting, but it’s really fun, and the more you do it the better you get.”

Asked about her advice for other potential performers, Mendis said, “If you have an inkling to do anything, don’t second-guess yourself. Just go for it because you’ll never know the journey it will take you on. It’s all about the journey, so any idea you think is really out there, just explore it because you never know.”

To learn more info about her upcoming show, visit melodyasbarbra.com.