Friday, April 2, 2010

A Dame Shame

That Australian gigastar, Dame Edna Everage (the purple-haired alter ego of Barry Humphries), and New York cabaret's best-known (for better or worse) export, Michael Feinstein, are the unlikely co-stars and strange bedfellows in the current Broadway revue, All About Me. There are several conceits to this show which gave us pause before we ever entered the Shubert Theatre: the credibility-stretching premise that both Dame Edna and Feinstein are convinced that each is starring in a one-man (?) show; the extreme brevity of the performance (90 minutes, no intermission); and the top dollar the house is charging ($120 orchestra) for such a slip of a show, with only five performers and a 12-piece orchestra.

DAME EDNA & MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: The lady is a tramp, and the emperor has no clothes.

And that was our doubtful mood before the curtain went up. Gazing around at the large chunks of empty rows, others had the same doubts, but weren't as willing as we were to part with $69.50 for a discount orchestra seat. Feinstein opens the show with an insufferably schticky, plasticky mauling of the Gershwins' "Strike Up the Band." We were completely unprepared for this manic munchkin grinning like The Joker and "singing" out in a scrupulously-rehearsed Vegas belt. Not familiar with Feinstein's actual work (he's been a nightclub fixture in Manhattan for as long as we can remember, but has never piqued our interest enough to buy his albums or see his cabaret act), we pictured him as a benign, harmless milquetoast. Instead, we got Bobby Darin's gay second cousin in a sharkskin suit and stacked heels.

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Tries to sound like Bobby Darin, comes across like Sandra Dee.

Dame Edna appears midway through Feinstein's lounge-act-Sinatra-tribute rendition of "The Lady is a Tramp," and the expected "comedy" ensues, with each performer insisting that they had booked the Shubert for themselves. It's a flimsy premise to begin with, and frankly, Feinstein isn't a good enough actor or comedian to trade scripted barbs with a wit as sharp as Edna's. When "the Edna-ettes" (the Dame's hunky Blatino security detail-slash-chorus boys) haul Feinstein off stage, you can practically hear the entire theater sigh in relief.

DAME EDNA EVERAGE, housewife turned gigastar.

Although the night clearly belongs to Dame Edna, that's not to say that the "lady" is an unqualified success. She's bawdy, she's funny, she has the best facial expressions since Lucille Ball pitched us Vitameatavegamin - but this Dame has been hawking the same one-liners and bits of business for (charitably) 20 years. After the fact, we even discovered that Dame Edna's surprising (and surprisingly effective) rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch" wasn't an inspired inclusion created specially for this Broadway outing: she'd trotted it out nearly 10 years earlier at a Sondheim tribute concert in London!

ANOTHER LADY WHO LUNCHES: We pray that Feinstein won't convince ELAINE STRITCH to duet with him as well.

Even so, Dame Edna is so hilarious and so quick on her bejeweled feet, we would have been satisifed paying our $69.50 just to hear her tried-and-true schtick, and to watch her zero in on unfortunate audience members. But, no, she has to share the stage with Feinstein, a performer one reviewer described as "blissfully and obliviously free of the shackles of charisma"; another astutely noted that "the show droops like a wilted gladiolus every time Feinstein takes center stage." Hearing him rip, serenely nuance- and emotion-free, through "What Did I Have That I Don't Have," "A Lot of Livin' to Do" and the like is a numbing experience. The quieter ballads, such as "My Romance," were much more effective and, tellingly, delivered in a voice almost completely different from his smarmier, Lake Tahoe style. In a blindfold test, we're not sure that we would even guess they were the same performer. That Feinstein is so willing to perform at odds with his more natural talents is either supremely courageous, or just plain stupid. We're willing to go with the latter.

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Too Smarm-elous for Words.

When we saw Marilyn Maye at Feinstein's eponymous cabaret a week prior, we were dumbfounded, as we always are, by how awkwardly the room is set up, doing neither the performer nor their audience any particular favors. This always struck us as bizarre, since the room was created by a performer who would, one would think, want to structure it in the most effective way possible to create some sort of connect between the singer and their listeners. Now that we know first-hand that Michael Feinstein hasn't a clue how to properly and effectively stage and present his own meager "gifts," we're no longer left scratching our heads over why he can't present others'. He simply hasn't the vaguest idea how.

BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE: Feinstein at home in his eponymous cabaret.

If you haven't ever seen Dame Edna strut her stuff in person, and you can score a ticket for, say, thirty or forty bucks (or, better yet, for free), you may find All About Me mildly diverting, with a few good belly laughs along the way. The caveat is that you're also stuck with (as one of our friends put it with wicked, deadly accuracy) Michael Feinstein, for whom "as each year passes, the skin gets tighter, the eyes beadier, the beaky face more marsupial, the thinning hair darker and more pube-like, and the suits shinier. The only constant with him is the flatline of talent. It never gets any better or prettier or wiser."

God, we wish we'd said that!

10 comments:

  1. I've seen Dame Edna's last two Broadway shows and loved them. Sorry to hear this one didn't work.

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  2. "I've seen Dame Edna's last two Broadway shows and loved them." Then you've seen this one, too - at least, Edna's portions of it. I love her, too, and enjoyed her last two performances - but it's almost exactly the same one-liners and routines. Don't get me wrong, even seeing the SAME stuff is hysterically funny because Barry/Edna is a brilliant comic. But at a certain point, it's insulting to a paying audience to haul out the same exact routines time after time, at Broadway prices.

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  3. Yeowzah!

    Michael is a Columbus boy, grew up in Eastmoor, a neighborhood east of hoity toity Bexley, the first Prestige" community in Central Ohio.

    Press coverage of him is always slanted - so far you would think he's the Christ child. But aside from performing here in his hometown one a decade, he really has no presence here (or on a stage from you review) so he's kinda cultural *blip* as it were.

    I would however pay to see his portrait that hangs in a locked room at his house - I'm sure that its ghastly old, though he never seems to age.

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  4. Well said Ducks.

    The second-to-last photo of Miss F. looks like it was shot through a futon!

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  5. Of Michael Feinstein it must be said ( whatever you might think of this production), that he introduced an entire generation to something they might have remained oblivious of, namely, the Great American Songbook. At this point in time he knows as much if not more than did the erudite Bobby Short (and erudition isn't something expected from singers as a rule), so that is to be valued, and respected. The singing style has become a tad strident of late, and it was an appalling error of judgement to make that tribute album to Sinatra ( odd too, considering that Sinatra was, by Mr Feinstein's own admission,his blind spot for many years) which only served to underscore his limitations. The ballads, supported by his own skillful piano, can be wonderfully affecting, as you've noted here. In other words, Michael Feinstein is best when he is reined in, understated, and direct. I'm not sure he quite deserved the venomous appraisal of your clever friend and I don't see the point of including it in
    a review of his musical programme.

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  6. I think for 60 bucks you can make all the nasty cracks about his Botox that you want. He's charging you for his appearance as well as his talent, otherwise he'd just be issuing CDs.

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  7. "I'm not sure he quite deserved the venomous appraisal of your clever friend and I don't see the point of including it in
    a review of his musical programme.
    " Because, dear Toby, I do believe his slick, overly processed appearance is a direct reflection of his slick, overly processed performance style. It's the total package, in other words. Venomous, yes, but in my opinion, accurate. I also agree that Feinstein introduced an entire generation to the Great American Songbook, but find it worrisome that very few of his followers have followed through and gone on to discover the greats of the genre: most of them seem to still think that he's the next Messiah. Also, the most wonderful things about the GAS (for me) are the care and intelligence put into the lyrics. Once you disregard or disconnect from that, singing those songs seems pointless.

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  8. I had completely forgotten that I saw Dame Edna on tour about 6 or 7 years ago and it was a LOT of fun. She would pick people out and ask them the paint colors of their bedroom or bathroom. I recall being SO glad my mother didn't get picked when she went because she had just painted her bedroom "pussywillow" and Edna would have slaughtered her. LOL

    Interesting post!

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  9. Poseidon3 - Dame Edna is still doing that routine. It's invariably hysterical, regardless of whom she picks on, but I do wish she'd come up with some new material.

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