"Mimi Hines Is A Happening!"
So proclaimed the title of her 1967 Decca album; and, last night at 54 Below, the little lady with the big voice proved it so once more, knocking a sophisticated, jaded audience out of their collective seats.
How sophisticated and jaded, you may query? How's this for starters: Lucie Arnaz. Joyce Breach. Jim Caruso. Fran Drescher. Donna Mckechnie. Jerry Mitchell. Liliane Montevecchi. Faith Prince. LeRoy Reams. Billy Stritch. Julie Wilson.
All of them rapt, attentive, spellbound one moment; then screaming, banging the tables, clamoring for more, the next. Strutting on stage to the strains of "Nothing Can Stop Me Now!", Ms. Hines -- making a rare appearance, in celebration of her 80th birthday -- demonstrated just that for the next hour plus. Looking fabulous with mile-long false eyelashes and a swath of blue eyeshadow, Mimi the magnificent belted out "Chicago," crooned "Till There Was You," and had us all in the palm of her hand.
The one-time Funny Girl (she took over for Streisand on Broadway when Barbra took the show to London) paid homage to that career highlight by singing "I'm the Greatest Star," making it clear in the process that she's no Streisand clone. She's 100% Mimi Hines, and she makes the material her own. Hines also sang the lovely ballad, "Who Are You Now," which was cut from the film version of the musical, and a treat to hear.
Mimi Hines has always been a brassy, belting broad; she still possesses a rapid-fire show biz wit and delivery when recounting some of her backstage tales, but time and experience have mellowed her singing voice. She still has reserves of power, to be sure, but remarkably, who she reminded us most of throughout the evening, was the inimitable saloon singer, Sylvia Syms. Big ballads that, in other hands (and, perhaps, Hines', too, once upon a time) would be overwrought and overdramatic -- "Who Can I Turn To?" and "Yesterday I Heard the Rain" -- were heartbreaking, devastating in their intimacy. Any lowered keys and skillfully sidestepped high notes were more than compensated for by powerful connection with the lyrics.
To that end, in a completely unexpected, stunning feat of acting, this quintessential "mensch" (as Jule Styne called her in the liner notes to that 1967 album) transformed herself completely into Madame Armfeldt for a stunning rendition of "Liaisons" from A Little Night Music. It was a revelation, not only for the total surprise of hearing and seeing Hines become that character, but for the sheer brilliance of her interpretation.
For us, though, the highlight of the evening was the seldom-revived "I'll Only Miss Him When I Think of Him" from Skyscraper; Hines recorded it for her debut album in 1966. Full disclosure: Hines' recorded rendition has never curried favor with us, in spite of the song being one of our all-time favorites. But last night, Mimi Hines sang it as its never been sung before, with such longing and tenderness, that we immediately realized that she wasn't singing about an unfortunate love affair; she was experiencing the pain and ache that only true loss can bring. And, sure enough, as the last notes drifted to the heavens, Hines whispered, "I miss ya, Phil." (The late Phil Ford was her long-time spouse and musical partner.) It was an almost painfully personal moment, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Cannily, Hines segued almost immediately into an upbeat arrangement of "It Only Takes a Moment" from Hello, Dolly!, with Ford still clearly on her mind.
Although the rapturous audience -- who visibly moved Hines with their unabashed appreciation and adoration -- would have gladly let her stay all night and sing 'em all, every good thing must come to an end. Fittingly, Hines closed her set with a beautiful, touching version of Johnny Mercer's "My Shining Hour." And when she wrapped up with his lyric: "This will be my shining hour/Till I'm with you again," truer words could never be spoken. Or sung.
Mimi Hines is a happening.