Tammy Grimes is nothing if not a fascinating mass of contradictions: with her affected, pseudo-British rasp and highly theatrical looks, she has always seemed the epitome of camp; yet her total belief in the persona that she has created for herself lends gravitas and weight to everything that she does. She's elegant, bawdy, ethereal, gutsy, imperious, earthy, vampy, sophisticated, brash and vulnerable in equal, wonderful measures.
In her new show at The Metropolitan Room, "Miss Tammy Grimes: Favorite Songs and Stories," the emphasis, albeit not necessarily intentionally, is on the vulnerable side of Miss Grimes' outsized personality. At 76, Grimes' famously throaty voice is no longer the flexible instrument it once was; and the still-imposing diva, in spite of her patrician profile, upswept blonde locks, and diaphanous Chanel gown, displays an oddly endearing case of stage jitters, nervously fingering her pearls one second, shaking madly the next.
It could have been a train wreck: dropped lyrics; "stories" which were literally read from a script - and which a somewhat-addled Grimes sometimes put before or after the wrong accompanying song; and those aforementioned stage jitters preventing Grimes from making eye contact with the audience from The Metropolitan's almost painfully intimate stage.
And yet, as a whole, the evening worked - sometimes beautifully. After a shaky opening of "Rose of Washington Square" (which was featured on her eponymous debut album in 1962), Grimes kicked things into high gear with an expert "Ring Them Bells," on which her comic timing truly shone, and made you forget all about Liza Minnelli. A surprise offering was Tom Waits' "Martha," which Grimes turned into a spellbinding tour de force of regret, longing and quiet desperation. It was easily the best performance of the evening.
Other highlights included a poignant reading of "How Deep is the Ocean," dedicated to her late husband, composer Richard Bell, who passed away in 2005; the very funny parable "The Snake"; Cole Porter's hilarious "Tale of the Oyster," perfectly suited to Grimes' madcap personality; "More Than One Man in My Life," from Grimes' Obie-winning performance in the off-Broadway Mademoiselle Colombe; and heart-wrenching interpretations of Noel Coward's "Someday I'll Find You," "I'll See You Again" and "If Love Were All." Of course, the number which elicited the greatest applause was "Home Sweet Heaven," Grimes' show stopper from High Spirits - the musical version of Coward's Blithe Spirit, which he directed.
But the song which pointed up both the tragedy and triumph of this uneven, yet moving and ultimately wonderful evening, was Kurt Weill's "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera. During this complex, lengthy, demanding song, Grimes repeatedly either went up in her lyrics or blanked out completely, becoming visibly upset and disoriented, murmuring her apologies to the audience; and, still, she soldiered through the entire song, and when she got it right, the effect was hair-raising, thrilling, brilliant. It was the cabaret equivalent of watching an aging prima ballerina called upon to execute an impossibly tricky Pièce de résistance, barely making her landings, but somehow still conveying all of her grace and dignity and artistry.
By the time Grimes finished roaring through a purposefully defiant "I Ain't Down Yet" (from her Tony-winning turn in The Unsinkable Molly Brown), it was clear that this indomitable survivor wasn't going to let a few muffed lyrics or a case of stage fright keep her from performing. Tammy Grimes is one of the last of the true show-must-go-on troupers from the golden age of Broadway and cabaret - and when she and her few still-standing peers are gone, there will be no one to take their place. Frankly, we'd rather see a few flashes of true brilliance from a legend than a thoroughly competent, completely ineffectual night of warbling by an American Idol-honed novice. As Miss Grimes herself sang in another number from High Spirits: "Tomorrow I may disappear." So if you think fondly of her, you'd better love her while you may, warts and all.
Miss Tammy Grimes performs at The Metropolitan Room through Wednesday evening.