Editor's Desk

The Diva Who Laughs

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Crossover, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Cabaret, Humor) Permanent link

Recently, on a Sunday afternoon, my partner and I walked into Mel's Burgers in our Columbia University neighborhood. In addition to having the greatest burgers on the West Side, Mel's is something of a sports bar. "Which game would you like to be seated next to?" asked the hostess when we walked in. "Um," said my partner, "I dunno. Do you have figure skating?"

I'm afraid this about sums up our degree of attachment to the world of sports, but we were of course keen to tune in on Super Bowl Sunday this year, because for the first time, the event would feature an opera singer — none other than soprano RENÉE FLEMING — singing the National Anthem. In the days that followed, we were frequently asked what we thought about her performance. My take was: slow beginning, odd, goopy arrangement. In the beginning, I experienced my familiar irritation with Fleming's refusal to sing English words simply and cleanly, without affectation, but I thought she dug in as it went on and finished up triumphantly. 

Then I was sent a YouTube clip of soprano/comedienne DOROTHY BISHOP, performing her spoof of Fleming's performance of the anthem. It's not the anthem at all, but a re-lyriced version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," which Fleming has performed in concert. "It must be a drag / If you don't love the flag," sang Bishop, launching into a wild scat section and then coming back with "It makes no difference if I'm black or white / I'm singing 'Oh say can you see' tonight!" Along the way, there are riffs on "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," too. It's a very funny — and not at all mean-spirited — takeoff on Fleming's ideas about singing jazz and pop music. I have never liked most of what Fleming has done in this area — I usually feel she is avoiding any real connection with the music in pursuit of what she considers "style" — but the odd thing about Bishop's performance is that it made me relax a bit about Fleming's pop side. It's obvious that Fleming loves this music, and Bishop somehow tapped into the star's immense likability factor. (There's also a strong resemblance between the two women — so much so that once, when Bishop got tired of being stuck in Met standing room, she jumped a parterre box seat and fended off an usher by telling him she was Renée Fleming.) New York audiences will have a chance to experience Bishop's take on Fleming when she brings her show The Dozen Divas to the Metropolitan Room, one of New York's top cabaret venues, on April 30 and May 5.

Bishop is a Yale-educated soprano who came to New York and enjoyed what she describes as "a successful, ten-year B-level career that wasn't going where I wanted it to go." She noticed that she was getting cast in comedies — she did dozens of Rosalindes and Fiordiligis, and she gradually began moving into musical-comedy cabaret, which is not the most remunerative of genres. "I saw that there was money headlining in the cruise ships," she recalls, "and so for a number of years, I made up my own Sarah Brightman show and did a pop-opera tribute — not necessarily to Sarah, but kind of copying her own style. I started throwing in a lot of comedy. I left the ships in 2011, burned out and frustrated artistically, and started to develop The Dozen Divas." The show featured Bishop's impersonations of Cher, Adele, Stevie Nicks and others, and for its run at the Manhattan night spot the Iguana, Bishop was nominated for a Broadway World Award for Best Musical Comedy Cabaret Performance. 

"Renée has that gorgeous spin that separates an A-level singer from a B-level singer. My voice probably has more metal, but hers is so pure and spinny. I wouldn't even try to imitate her opera singing. But people are sensitive about her — and about 'The Star Spangled Banner,' too. I think at the moment on YouTube I have fifty-five likes and forty hates. I left some of the bad comments up, but there were so many, with people writing stupid stuff. A lot of Vietnam vets said they were offended that I made fun of the National Anthem.

"Renée is, for some people, the highlight of my whole act," says Bishop. "I don't know her personally, and I'm not making fun of her fabulous, glorious opera singing. I have people who claim to be friends of hers and who have come to my show and say, 'She doesn't care.' Now when I was doing Sarah Palin, she sent some people, and they sat in the front row with arms crossed, not laughing at all. They did not laugh. I closed with a very funny parody of "Rose's Turn" — "Sarah's Turn" — you can imagine. Then I did sing-along Christmas carols with a Rudolph parody that ended with her shooting John McCain. Afterward, they were very sarcastic. They said, 'We're so happy we can go back and tell Sarah she has nothing to worry about.' I just smiled and said, 'Thank you for coming.'"

This July, Fleming herself will be reaching out to a new audience when she stars in Joe DiPietro and Garson Kanin's comedy Living on Love at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. spacer

BRIAN KELLOW

The Pop Side

(Brian Kellow, Crossover, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Theater, Cabaret) Permanent link

Anyone who wants a juicy demonstration of savvy, old-time show-biz razzle dazzle shouldn't think of missing Sin Twisters, the new club act starring ANITA GILLETTE and PENNY FULLER at Manhattan's popular theater-district nightspot 54 Below. I attended the opening on October 2. Sharply and confidently directed by BARRY KLEINBORT, Sin Twisters is frequently hilarious, frequently touching, and even more frequently awe-inspiring. Gillette and Fuller never attained top Broadway stardom, but they are two of the most respected and versatile actresses of their generation — what used to be called darlings of the theater. The show's title is a spoonerism — a treasured gag that runs through the show, adding to its infectious spirit. ("Pit it, Haul!" Gillette called out at one point to musical director PAUL GREENWOOD, whose stylish pianism and gorgeous vocals added immeasurably to the evening. I should probably admit here that I've always been a sucker for spoonerisms, "Ballulah Tankhead" being my own personal favorite.)

In this generously programmed act, both Gillette and Fuller showed crack comic timing and solid vocals, as they wove their way through a loose narrative that ticked off high points of their careers but never became stale or predictable. A raucous high point was Gillette's ultra-swacked rendition of "If I Were a Bell," from Guys and Dolls; she reached a stunning emotional peak with "Isn't He Something?" from Stephen Sondheim's Bounce, and the gorgeous "Once Upon a Time," from All American, which she sang with Fuller. (I've never known anyone of a certain age who didn't succumb to this lovely song). I had always considered "One Halloween" one of the junkier numbers from the 1970 musical Applause, a show that an Encores! concert presentation of a few years ago proved is beyond reviving. But in Fuller's expert hands (she received a Tony nomination for the role of Eve Harrington), it was magical — an example of a real artist transforming her mediocre material. In duet, Gillette and Fuller shone in "Little Me" and a medley of tunes from Cabaret; both actresses had their turn playing Sally Bowles on Broadway. The audience, which included SHELDON and MARGERY HARNICK, JOHN GLOVER, HARVEY EVANS, SONDRA LEE, MALCOLM GETS and LEROY REAMS, came away with a bracing sense of two women who have gotten the most out of their careers and still have many premium performing miles to go. They'll reprise Sin Twisters at Club 54 on October 9. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Willkommen, Bienvenue

(Brian Kellow, Performances, New York City, Cabaret) Permanent link

K. T. Sullivan and Karen Kohler rolled the dice and won: they presented their smartly conceived cabaret show Vienna to Weimar on February 24 — Oscar night — at the Triad on West Seventy-second Street. By a few minutes into the program, it was doubtful that anyone in the audience worried about missing Seth MacFarlane's opening monologue. 

Vienna to Weimar begins reassuringly, with Sullivan offering Rudolf Sieczynski's "Wien, Wien nur du allein," English words by Kim Gannon. (Gannon is one of my favorite trivia subjects: he wrote the words for some awfully good popular songs, including Max Steiner's "It Can't Be Wrong," taken from the 1942 Bette Davis film Now, Voyager, and the Christmas classic "I'll Be Home for Christmas." He deserves to be mentioned oftener than he is.) Then Sullivan lit into a delightful version of Fledermaus's "Mein Herr Marquis" (including the English words by Howard Dietz), hitting all her comic marks with ease and grace; she has a wonderful self-mocking quality that lands consistently with the audience. With Kohler, Sullivan also dusted off "Wenn die beste Freundin" (When the Special Girlfriend) and "Maskulinum-Femininum," both by Mischa Spoliansky and Marcellus Schiffer, revealing them as the sophisticated, subversive gems that they are. It fell to Kohler to cover the Weimar section of the waterfront and convey most of the spoken history lesson to the audience, which contrasted effectively with Sullivan's lighter approach. And although Sullivan didn't get near the chilling fury that an artist such as Nina Simone can bring to the Brecht–Weill "Pirate Jenny," she did manage to make that song uniquely her own. After spinning through a fine group of Friedrich Hollaender numbers, including the choice "Illusions," both women brought the evening to a memorable close with Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz," from 1967, and Franz Lehár's "Merry Widow Waltz." Jed Distler was the evening's excellent musical director. 

As New York's cabaret scene continues its quiet erosion, K. T. Sullivan is one of its enduring delights. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Striking a Pose

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Cabaret) Permanent link

For a while, during her club act at 54 Below on January 24, Marin Mazzie looked like she might spend the evening circling without landing. She opened with a remembrance of her Illinois childhood, giving us a snapshot of a typical Saturday evening when her parents, cocktails at the ready, danced in front of the hi-fi to classic romantic ballads of the period such as "Tenderly." During this part of the evening, Mazzie seemed oddly "posed" and removed from the audience; she seemed to be in on a joke that she wasn't going to share with us, and it was hard to get a handle on where we might be heading. 

Fortunately, things picked up once she began to sing Top-40 hits from her own growing-up years. With excellent support from a band headed by her musical director Joseph Thalken, Mazzie gave killer renditions of schlocky '70s numbers such as the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You," the Barbra Streisand–Paul Williams Gibson greeting-card romance "Evergreen" and Barry Manilow's "When Will I Hold You Again?" which she managed to make us believe is a pretty terrific song. Just as she was reaching an excellent performance peak, the evening seemed to end rather abruptly, leaving the audience feeling just slightly undernourished.

Mazzie is one of the most exciting singing actresses on the Broadway scene, and I'm always a little frustrated that, apart from Passion, she hasn't originated a show that was really worthy of her. (Her replacement-cast performance in Next to Normal, opposite her talented husband Jason Daniely, was one of the most electrifying turns I've seen in years.) Now I'd like to see her do a full-scale cabaret show on the order of those offered by the great Marilyn Maye — something that really lets us know who she is. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW


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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10