Interviewing Amy Steinberg in a coffee shop is an oddly redundant experience. The mercurial singer-comedienne has so much natural caffeine flowing through her veins that augmenting it with dark-roast brew is like warming yourself before a blazing fire on Independence Day.
Yet there we were, at a Caribou Coffee in Matthews, chatting about her two favorite topics: God and love. Or maybe that should be written Godandlove, as the two subjects are inextricably intertwined for this questing soul.
She's talking about the sacred and fraternal sides of love, the kinds she sings about on Sunday mornings as leader of the choir at the Spiritual Living Center of Charlotte.
But she's also talking about the make-your-back-sweaty kind, the type she talks about so raucously and gleefully in "Oh My God Don't Stop." As she asks in that one-woman show, which runs twice more this month at Petra's Piano Bar and may extend to March, "Where do we say 'Oh my God' more than in bed?"
She even plays the gregarious, slightly forgetful Lord of All Creation in the show, wearing a purple wig and dispensing advice: "What matters is if any of the behavior you engage in is hurting you or others." She also plays an open-minded Jewish grandma and her floundering husband, their baffled 13-year-old granddaughter, an evangelical Christian preacher and his frustrated, lesbian-curious wife. (The wife's sex-ed lecture is a profane highlight.)
"These are caricatures, but with a realistic base," Steinberg explains. "The whole show is about having an awakening, taking a journey."
That's her life in one sentence. She was born in Boston, moved at 8 to the Gulf Coast of Florida, went to music colleges in Boston and New York and left before graduation to do an Eastern European tour of "Hair" at 21.
"We played in Zagreb, and bombs were literally going off in the distance while we sang about peace," she says. " That was surreal. When I got back to New York, I started to write music." (Career low point: Her musical version of Tom Stoppard's play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.")
She eventually moved to Orlando, where "Oh God" premiered at the 2005 Orlando International Fringe Festival. She came up to Boone, following a guy she loved, then moved to Charlotte last summer to take the Spiritual Living Center job. Through it all, she kept touring with her comedy and music and a box of her four CDs in the car. (The newest: "Love Divine.")
"I'd never felt the sense of community I did at the Center," she says. "It's not about memorizing lines from a book. We believe you create your life every day, with everything you say and do. The music's unusual: We may sing (R.E.M.'s) "Shiny Happy People," or I'll compose a song on the spot from a chord given to me by the congregation."
Steinberg should have the prefix "pan" tattooed on her forearm. (It would go with the word "trust," the symbol for infinity and a drawing of a feminine goddess, which are already there in colored ink.)
She's pantheistic, if one has to apply a religious label. Her show is pansexual: Program notes for "Oh God" say, "I do hope ... whatever you do or don't believe, you choose love and acceptance over judgment and condemnation."
And she has spent her 38 years on Earth trying out ideas and options. A lot of her previous confusion, especially about Godandlove, comes out in this play. (She's not confused about fiancé Brad Townsend, who runs lights and sound for "Oh God.")
"I've had audiences that cheered, and an audience in Florida where half the people walked out," she says. "But my idols, people like George Carlin and Joan Rivers, took chances. I want to speak to people who are OK hearing something uncomfortable.
"In Portland, this show is so yesterday. But in Charlotte, these (issues) still stick in our consciousness. In fact, two weeks ago, I was thinking I shouldn't open 'Oh God,' so I called my sister the rabbi.
"She asked, 'Are these thoughts of yours coming from love or from fear?'
" 'Fear,' I told her.
" 'Then these thoughts are not coming from God,' she said. And she was right."