NYC diary: Betty Buckley’s ‘Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway’ at Feinstein’s


Betty Buckley’s new cabaret act is now playing at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency through Oct 29.

Betty Buckley loves men. And in a pair of glittery silver heels balanced by her elegantly tousled silver hair, she tells us, through song and story, about her favorite male parts. Musical theatre parts, that is, including songs from leading male roles in West Side Story, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls and Sweeney Todd.

The vaguely implied impetus for Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway is the depressing lack of strong, mature female parts for women; whereas, for men, the roles are plentiful. In fact, in a hilarious original tune penned by Eric Stern and Eric Kornfeld, Buckley joked how there are “two strong parts for women, and I played both of them!”

(And, for the record, based on her emotionally intense performance of tunes from Sweeney Friday night – a medley of “Not While I’m Around,” “Johanna” and “My Friends” – Buckley would make a stupendous Sweeney. Just sayin’.)

From the first note in her show – a fresh, breezy arrangement of “I Can See It” from The Fantasticks – Buckley was in very fine voice with this mostly new material and seemed to be having the time of her life. Especially when she introduced two songs from her most favorite musical ever, West Side Story: “Jet Song” and “Maria.” Her giddiness is contagious and her tight trio of Christian Jacob on piano (who also did many of the evening’s inventive arrangements) Anthony Pinciotti on drums and Peter Barshay on bass keep the beat pumping and your toes tapping.

However, my hands-down favorite moment of the evening was a little-known number from William Finn’s Elegies called “Venice.” Originated by Michael Rupert in the original 2003 production at Lincoln Center, of which Buckley was also part, this is a stunning story song about watching a loved one slowly begin to lose their mental facilities as illness takes over. I hope Buckley records it on an upcoming album; this performance demands to be preserved.

This is my second time seeing Buckley in this classy and cozy space (I sat next to John McDaniel and Christine Pedi Fridyay night – it’s that kind of crowd), and the fit between venue and performer is divine. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a rare and intimate night with this one-of-a-kind performer. As Buckley says at the end of her show, “It’s like I’m throwing a party every night!” Amen, indeed, Ms. Betty Buckley!

“Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway” plays through October 29 at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency at 540 Park Avenue, New York, NY. More info here >

Patti LuPone gives a true audition

Remember this classic scene from “Life Goes On”? No? Well, take a moment and watch the clip below, if not only to witness LuPone (as Libby Tatcher) give one kick-ass audition, but to see LuPone stop mid-performance to yell at an audience member — one of her favorite pastimes.

Only, this time the audience member is the director for the show she’s auditioning for, and she has some choice things to say about actors, auditions and respect. Take it away, Patti:

I’m not an actor, but I have a ton of respect for those who slug through rounds of frustrating auditions. So, people: Let’s show these artists some respect during the audition process! LuPone (as Libby Thatcher) demands it.

Video: Susan Moniz in ‘Romance, Romance’

I’ve heard of Susan Moniz for years. While she’s a known-quantity in the Chicago musical theatre scene, it wasn’t until very recently that I’ve seen her work. (However, I’ve been blown away by her fierce vocal performance of “Since I Don’t Have You” on the Second City Divas: Live at the Mercury Theatre CD. If you don’t have this album, you should.)

So, when I saw her performance in Provision Theatre’s Shadowlands (my review here) last weekend, I finally understood: this woman is a star. While she doesn’t sing a note in the show, you simply can’t take your eyes off her.

So, like anything that fascinates me, I did a Google search, and came upon this wonderful performance of her from a 1992 production of Romance/Romance at the Cherry County Playhouse in Muskegon, Michigan, which was taped and televised for the now-defunct “Clairol on Broadway” series.

This is her big act act two number, where she — a married woman — contemplates having an affair with a married man, whom she met while on vacation in The Hamptons (oh, white-collar melodramas):

Patti LuPone will get you sh*tfaced

LuPone and Benanti

Yesterday, Broadway diva Patti LuPone was honored by The Drama League for, basically, being Patti LuPone. Fancy Broadway types, socialites (and the lovely SarahB, who volunteered at the event and blogged about it here) came together to honor the bawdy belter. New York magazine recently asked some of the attendees to share their favorite “meeting Patti LuPone” stories, and they’re, quite frankly, awesome. My favorite comes from from Laura Bananti, who co-starred in the 2008 revival of Gypsy with LuPone (they both won Tonys for their work):

“Well, the first time I ever went out with Patti we were rehearsing for City Center Encores in Gypsy, and she was like, ‘Let’s go out after the show and get a drink.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay!’ I think I was 27 or something like that. And so we go across the street — I hadn’t eaten all day because I had to play a stripper so I was trying to get really skinny — and she ordered two double vodka and sodas. Two of them. I was like, ‘Me too.’ And four hours later I was vomiting out the window of a cab. [Laughs.] My husband said that he came in the next morning and I was just lying on the bottom of the shower. And he said, ‘What happened to you?’ And I said, ‘Patti LuPone.’ [Laughs.]“

Read the rest here >

My (somewhat grumpy) thoughts on ‘Sondheim! The Birthday Concert’

Note: I had a glass (or three) of wine last night and watched the “Sondheim! The Birthday Concert” dvd from start to finish, allowing myself one documented thought per performance. A word of warning: I guess I was a touch grumpy. And it might help to have seen the DVD to know what I’m referring to in some areas. So, I guess what I’m saying is … read at your own risk?

So, let’s get started!

- Yay, Paul Gemignani!

- Oh, that clever and uptight Niles Crane! Loving this bright, showy overture — same one they used for that infamous Ravinia concert this summer.

- Surprise star entrances! Watch as they glide on the stage, meet in pairs, and collect a flute of champagne before floating back off to the wings! Oh! Did LuPone just say “no!” to the champagne? And how cruel, Mr. Lonny Price, staging it so Elaine Stritch, a long-time recovering alcoholic, has to walk by the champagne tray. A pro, she makes it into a bit. Good girl.

- Karen Olivio certainly is having problems with the dancing of “America.” Is this during her ankle troubles?

- Alex Gemignani’s “Something’s Coming” is quite solid. And when did he get attractive?

(This is when the grumpy starts in…)

- Is it just me, or are Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley a mismatched couple? And why does Mazzie enter the stage with her tongue sticking out all the time? She did that in her first entrance at the top of the show. Bizarre.

- Big yawn at Victoria Clark’s mugging. She’s doing her best to sell a song that’s kind of a one-note joke.

- That Nathan Gunn certainly can sing, and has amazing hair, but he’s like dead wood onstage. Very (very) attractive dead wood, but dead wood nonetheless.

- Cute performance of a favorite Follies number of mine, “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” / “Love Will See Us Through.” No complaints.

- Oh, Audra. It must be hard to emote next to a head of perfect hair (aka Gunn, again). Kudos for trying.

- More Follies? Oh, okay. It’s John McMartin, after all, and his performance makes me wish more than ever that I could’ve seen the original production of Follies.

- Chip Zien has not changed one bit. Joanna Gleason’s face, on the other hand, has morphed into a different creature altogether. However, they’re still adorable together performing “It Takes Two.”

- Jim Walton accompanying himself in “Growing Up” is just pure class. Love this performance. Love him.

- Oh, god. Patinkin is more annoying and mannered here than I’ve ever seen him before.

- Is it just me, or are Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin a mismatched couple? Peters looks like a goddess, per usual. And would it kill you to wear a suit, Mr. Pantinkin?

- Cerveris and Hearn — one is “Sweeney: Light,” the other is “Sweeney: Full Bodied.” Guess which one is which?

- A threesome “Little Priest,” eh? Cute idea. Liked it more at Ravinia. LuPone needs to pick a key. And what IS she wearing? Looks like she ransacked Blanche Devereaux’s closet. Is it a dress? A pantsuit? What?

- Why the dancing? Where’s that wine bottle?

- Laura Benanti is positively glowing. A simple performance of a simple song (“So Many People”). But why can’t she get the orchestra to back her up?

- David Hyde Pierce – I love you. You’re adorable. But don’t sing high notes, k?

- Here come the ladies! My: that’s a lot of red.

- While this isn’t my first time seeing LuPone do “The Ladies Who Lunch” with a full orchestra, it is the first time seeing her perform it in such a bright red dress. Has the bossa nova ever sounded so belty? Very happy her performance of this number has been (legitimately) documented. Maybe it’s just me, but her hair’s looking very “wiggy” these days.

- I’m sorry to say, but Mazzie (whom I love) is the “one of these things is not like the other” entry. Still, a solid, if oversung, “Losing My Mind.”

- Audra (and Audra’s amazing arms) are singing this song (“The Glamorous Life”)? Again? She’s great at it, but come ON. She’s sung it at every concert I’ve attended of hers for the past five years.

- Meanwhile, a mascara-streaked LuPone observes her contemporaries from the sidelines:

- I’ve never been a fan of Donna Murphy’s, but she absolutely nails “Could I Leave You?”

- Bernadette can barely get through “Not a Day Goes By” she’s emoting so hard. No one sings it better, but we’ve heard her performance of this song before, haven’t we? Next!

- Stritch is still here, dammit, showin’ you young’ins how it’s done. I love watching the ladies watch her.

- Not the most original finale for a Sondheim concert (“Sunday”), but seeing a verklempt Sondheim was worth it. And that’s a shit-load of singers. Oh, hey! Is that Nancy Opel?

- A teary-eyed Sondheim takes a bow, and I want to rush up there and give him a hug. Despite my cantankerous mood, this was a wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.

And there you go! Happy birthday, Sondheim!

‘Follies’ concert at the Humanities Festival

Oh, Follies. That Sondheim masterpiece featuring a killer score and troubled book. And last night, a one-night only concert of this work took place at the surprisingly handsome auditorium of the Francis W. Parker School to support The Humanities Festival. This concert, sponsored by Greta Wiley Flory in memory of her late husband Bill, a longtime friend and supporter of the Festival (isn’t that just so romantic?), featured some of the best musical theatre performers in the city.

I think most of us know the story: former follies performers come together for an ultimate mingle before their theatre is torn down. They relive some of their favorite follies moments, while four of them — the leads — choose to spend the evening haunted by ghosts of their unfulfilled dreams and bicker at each other. Talk talk talk, bicker bicker bicker bicker.

But you gotta know the territory.

Well, music director Doug Peck — who masterminded and assembled this evening along with his partner, and host for the evening, Rob Lindley — certainly knows the territory of Sondheim’s tricky score. Music direction, which featured (extremely) reduced orchestrations by Peck, was pristine. We had piano (played by Peck), bass, drumset, violin, trumpet and flugelhorn (the latter two both played by the outstanding Carey Deadman).

And the folks in the important roles knew their parts remarkably well, too. Well, at least the ladies did. Hollis Resnik made for a dark and emotionally raw Sally. Without notice, her voice would flip from kitten-esque purr to steely belt. While at times just a tad flat, I adored her “Losing my Mind.” I should also note that Resnik’s choice of outfit for this concert was perfect: a black tea dress with full skirt. Totally Sally. By comparison, Rebecca Finnegan didn’t bother to amend her ueber-contemporary look for the role, but her selling of Phyllis’s two songs (well, four if you count that she expertly performed a medley of Phyllis’s various follies numbers, including “Uptown, Downtown,” “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” and “Ah, But Underneath”) was exemplary. Exemplary, I tell you.

What else? Barbara Robertson gave an effortlessly giddy “Ah, Paris” (would love to see her take of Phyllis someday, too) and Peggy Roeder seemed to live every syllable of “I’m Still Here” (though she could cut back on the speak-singing — not so much a fan of that). And then there was Renee Matthews and Emily Rohm who give me chills (and tears) with “One More Kiss.” I haven’t heard that song performed so well…ever?

Another highly anticipated performer on my list was E. Faye Butler, who flew over from Washinton, D.C., where she’s starring as Aunt Eller in a landmark production of Oklahoma at Arena Stage, to sing “Who’s That Woman” and, as a surprise addition, “Can That Boy Foxtrot” … into her music stand. And this was the biggest problem with several of the performers on an otherwise lovely night: a white-knuckled dependence on the lyric books. A little more familiarity with Sondheim’s score by these secondary performers (and the leading men) would have been nice.

Oh, I’m being such a picky bitch. For a one night concert with probably very, very little rehearsal, it was fabulous.

Sutton Foster ‘blesses’ Chicago’s new Broadway Playhouse


Sutton Foster at the Broadway Playhouse.

The radiant, gangly, Tony-winning Broadway star Sutton Foster has opened Chicago’s new Broadway Playhouse with style and heart.

Some would argue that Ms. Foster is the last true Broadway star. No other actor of her generation has originated so many lead roles in new musicals on Broadway who isn’t a) a movie star, b) a TV star, c) an American Idol, d) a powerful producer’s daughter. She’s just Sutton Foster, of the bright, big voice and easy-going personality who broke out from the chorus nine years ago because someone gave her the chance to take over the lead in the hit musical Thoroughly Modern Milly. Two of those star makers were producers Mike Isaacson and Kristin Caskey, who were on hand last night to introduce Ms. Foster to the buzzing audience as she officially “blessed” the Broadway Playhouse.

About that new space. It seems like only yesterday that it opened its doors as Drury Lane Water Tower — the less popular step sister of Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace. Now, purchased by Broadway in Chicago, the space has gotten a sleek, urban makeover. Gone are the red carpets, cream walls and gold chandeliers. In their place are black, chrome, neon and a splashes of red, with a striking new lobby entrance. The place is contemporary to a fault. While I’m not sure the design pendulum needed to swing so far away from the tacky-glam Drury Lane aesthetic (the neon light tubes are a bit overkill), it’s an impressive space. I can’t wait to see how Broadway in Chicago will utilize it.

Broadway Playhouse: before (left) and after (right) transformation

And now to Ms. Foster. With her unassuming demeanor, unmade face and straight brown hair, you immediately feel at ease when she’s on the stage — like she’s that dorky, talented friend who you always knew would make it big. So it’s perfect she should be the first person to test out the space. She just radiates good vibes.

In her 1.5 hour, one act set, she sings the hits from her already impressive stage career along with folksy, simple tunes from her album, “Wish.” I particularly enjoyed her wistful take on Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle.” The woman can weave a spell.

Typical patter between songs goes something like this: “Guess what?” (Audience says, “What?”) “I was a question on Jeopardy. I know! I didn’t see it, but my friend told me about it. They say you’ve made it big when you’re a question on Jeopardy! But…no one knew the answer…”

Cute, right?

With a voice like hers, which is full of bright, Broadway pizzaz, you’re waiting for her to step away from the introspective, plaintive songs and, well, belt! Thankfully, she devotes a small (too small) section of the show to “really high belt songs.” She literally puts the titles of five big belting songs in a cup — “The Story Goes On” from Baby, “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife, “Defying Gravity” from, well you know, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl, and “And I’m Telling You” from Dreamgirls — and asks an audience member to pull out a title for her to sing. I wanted “And I’m Telling You,” but we got “Meadowlark,” which she started softly and built up to the requisite and promised belt.

And wait ’till you see what she does with “Show off,” the number from another Tony-nominated role of hers. I think at that point the audience fell in love. Two standing ovations later and a performance of the number that made her a star (“Gimme Gimme“) sent the audience home delighted and charmed.

Following Ms. Foster, who plays through Sunday (more info here), is Traces, a French-Canadian acrobatic team that will leap in Oct. 26 – Dec. 19, followed by a revised version of Working, (Feb. 15-May 8, 2011), the musical based on Studs Terkel’s book that will star Chicago favorites E. Faye Butler, Barbara Robertson and Gene Weygandt (I can’t WAIT for this one).

Things I learned reading Patti LuPone’s memoir: a fan’s perspective

To say I’m a fan of Patti LuPone’s would be an understatement. Sixteen years ago, I happened upon a record (the vinyl kind) of the 1987 cast recording of Anything Goes where she starred as the sassy Reno Sweeney. I quickly wore that record out, and this thin, dorky high schooler was hooked.

I’ve since followed her career closely, catching her in numerous concerts and performances, reading countless articles, and collecting the recordings. I bought her a martini once. I even established a “LuPone” Google news alert, which sends daily news bites about the two time Tony winner to my email (shut up).

And now, with the release of her new tell-all book, “Patti LuPone: A Memoir,” that news alert is working overtime. She’s promoting it hardcore — even appearing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

While I (of course) was curious to hear what the lady herself had to say about things such as the Sunset Boulevard debacle, or her experiences working with Arthur Laurents in Gypsy, I also wanted to discover things I didn’t already know about this colorful and deeply opinionated artist.

So, rather than writing a review (snore), I’m going to highlight things that jumped out at me as a long-time fan:

Her ego is bigger, and more fragile, than I ever imagined. She attempts to make us believe she has a “fuck it” attitude toward showbusiness, but she’s really just a big ball of neediness and insecurity. There are so many examples I could draw from. If you’re LuPone’s understudy, you better kiss her feet after she gives you the opportunity to go on. And don’t you dare to give a performance that surpasses hers (I’m talking to you, Terri Klausner). And she essentially accuses the lovely Randy Graff of stealing her interpretation of Fantine (Graff took over the role in Les Misérables on Broadway when LuPone, who originated it in London, turned it down). And it’s not really clear in her book if LuPone actually even saw Graff’s performance.

My favorite part is when she talks about how she didn’t feel she was getting the applause she wanted when she took her bow in Evita, and then she adapted her performance to get a bigger hand. This just seemed off-putting to me — like her performance was only valid if the audience went ape shit. This comes after she spends the first quarter of the book extolling the virtues of her trial-by-fire training at Julliard and how she eventually learned as an actor that her “only obligation is to serve the text.” Sure, but it also sounds like her ego needed serving as well.

She loves to point a finger: The Sunset chapters in the book are a great read. She clearly was treated like crap. However, as much as she tries to explain to the reader, I still don’t understand why Glenn Close was ever obligated to call her and wish her well in her run as Norma Desmond. [For those who don't know, Andrew Lloyd Webber famously, and humiliatingly, broke LuPone's contract stating she was to open the role on Broadway (after having premiered the role in London for a year) in favor of the more commercially safe Glenn Close. This devestated LuPone. She went on Prozac. It nearly ruined her marraige.]

She had breast cancer in 2001: Wow. Total news to me! Glad she’s ok.

Theatre awards mean the world to her: She lost the Tony three times in her career, and you’d think it was like someone stole them from her and then crapped in her lap as a consolation prize. She isn’t shy about telling us how upset she was following her Tony loss in Anything Goes. “It was a bad night for me,” she says. (Her poor husband.) She then tells us in the next paragraph how she started getting bored and bitter performing in the show, and it ultimately became a negative experience. It’s amazing that she doesn’t realize how ridiculous and unprofessional she comes across here — you lost the Tony, so now you don’t care. Again: isn’t your only obligation to serve the text? Not to win awards?

She reads her reviews: Not only does she read them, she memorizes them, digests them, lets them fester and then saves them in scrap books.

She thanks a lot of people in her book, but know who she forgets to thank? Her fans. Please, someone, correct me if I’m wrong here, but not once does she thank those people who spend hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars to see her onstage. I mean, without the fans, where would she get that applause she so desperately wants? A mention in the back of the lengthy list of acknowledgements would have been nice. We are the ones who bought her book, after all.

In short, I found it an infuriating, fascinating and entertaining read. Does it change my opinion of her? Not really. It confirmed my suspicions.

However, I now know she had crabs in the early ’70s. (Read the book).

It’s (finally) arrived.

Review to come. (And, oh boy, I can’t wait to write it.)

Get your copy >

“Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway in ‘Baby Boom’


Sisters Liz (left) and Ann Hampton Callaway share some musical memories. [photo credit: Broadwayworld.com]

I remember as a kid riding in the back seat of my parents’ mini van with my older sister on the way to Grandma B’s. One thing we did to pass the time was hold pinching contests. I can’t recall who won, but we both have the battle scars to prove it happened. (Me, a crescent-shaped indentation above my lip; her, a similar mark on her wrist.)

We were odd kids.

The Callaway sisters spent their backseat hours as kids in the ’60s doing something more socially acceptable (and significantly less disfiguring): sing medleys of their favorite top 40 songs.

Of course, they’ve each grown up to become mega-talented musicians in their own right. (Ann, a respected and awarded cabaret and big band singer, with a husky, rich and seemingly rangeless voice; and Liz, a Broadway veteran whose airy pop-soprano somehow seems as optimistic as it does wise.) Lucky for us, they’ve taken this joy of singing the sounds of the ’60s from the back of their parents’ 1963 Thunderbird to the stage.

With Baby Boom, which played for one night only yesterday at the Schaumburg Prairie Center for the Arts, they celebrate the music and artists of of the baby boom age. The Beatles, Carly Simon, Carole King, Petula Clark, Righteous Brothers, The Fifth Dimension, Nancy Sinatra, Stevie Wonder — there’s a lot of ground to cover here. Liz gravitates toward the poppy sounds, such as “Downtown” and “Up, Up and Away,” where Ann accompanies herself on piano to a dynamic arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and leads a gospel-inspired “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

And, of course, they join each other in duets — most notably a near-epic medley of Stevie Wonder tunes, which opens the second act. On the more serious side, their duet of Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” is also remarkable.

The approach they each take to interpreting a song is night (Ann) and day (Liz). Where Liz is simplicity and focus, Ann offers intensity and passion. Put them together, and it’s a match made in vocal arrangement heaven. The blend they share in their complex and unexpected harmonies is unlike anything I’ve heard before. And the arrangements by Alex Rybeck (who also plays piano as part of a tight trio of musicians) are stellar, letting you really listen to the lyrics of these well-known tunes for the fist time.

Aside from the musicianship, this pair is fun to watch simply because they so genuinely enjoy performing together. The respect they radiate for one another is contagious. But they also aren’t shy about stealing the spotlight when it comes time to deliver.

My only gripes is the venue. Not unlike a high school auditorium, the Prairie Center, built in 1986, isn’t the most intimate (or attractive) venue. Maybe someone will be smart and book this pair in a Chicago venue, such as, perhaps, the new Broadway Playhouse. I’m sure the theatre queens, cabaret lovers and baby boomers would fill the house.

Angela Lansbury Works. It. Out.

If you only know Ms. Lansbury from her days as Jessica Fletcher, than you don’t know the half. Here she is selling it in a Jerry Herman flop musical.

“If music is no longer lovely,
If laughter is no longer lifting,
If lovers are no longer loving,
Than I don’t want to know!”

Trite, but true!

It’s a Patti LuPone fest around here

I’m in love with this Out.com interview with LuPone by Mickey Rapkin. It’s ripe with gems:

For a second LuPone is quiet. “It’s show business,” she says. “Sometimes it fucking sucks.”

“I’m Sicilian. It’s not water off a duck’s back. It sits there and it festers. For years.”

And so she briefly explains that she and [former Gypsy] director Arthur Laurents are now on the outs. “I did a TV pilot and Arthur got mad at me,” she says. “He’s a terrific man. I just want him to be happy.

Stephen Sondheim wanted her to play the witch in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods, until negotiations broke down. “Then Bernadette [Peters] got billing and everything else I wanted,” LuPone says, shrugging.

I ask her to tell me more about New York in 1980, when she was doing her famous cabaret act at midnight every Saturday at a Chelsea nightclub called Les Mouches (now a Medicaid office!). “Andy Warhol came,” she says. “John McEnroe. Stephen Sondheim. Tanya Tucker showed up one night. I went, ‘Tanya Tucker? What the fuck is this?’”

And all this on top of calling Andrew Lloyd Webber an alcoholic. Can’t WAIT for the memoir.

LuPone gets her ‘Gun’ this weekend at Ravinia

Before Patti LuPone goes on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she’s gettin’ her gun this weekend at Ravinia.

Annie Get Your Gun is one of those musicals that’s overloaded with gems. From “There’s No Business Like Showbusiness,” to “I Got Lost In His Arms” and back to “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better),” it’s golden age Broadway through-and-through. I’m confident LuPone will knock those big showstoppers out of the (Highland) park. Long live Irving Berlin, and God bless Ethel Merman (the original Annie Oakley when the show premiered on Broadway in 1946).

Brian Stokes Mitchell was set to be LuPone’s Frank Butler at Ravinia, but for “scheduling reasons” we get Patrick Cassidy, who played the role for a spell in the 1999 Broadway revival opposite Cheryl Ladd (Bernadette Peters had moved on from her Tony-winning performance by that point). Lonnie Price will direct the semi-staged concert, which begins performances tomorrow night and runs through Sunday. I’m going Sunday.

Price actually directed LuPone in a one-night only concert of AGYG (yay acronyms!) at the Vivian Beaumont theatre in 1998 opposite Peter Gallagher. Rosie O’Donnell featured LuPone and Gallagher on her daytime talk show following the acclaimed concert, and it’s an often-played clip at gay bars during showtune video evenings:

Jennifer Holliday @ Northalsted Market Days


JHol belts it out as only she can. Photo credit: golf082

When I heard Ms. Jennifer Holliday — the original Dreamgirl — was performing at this year’s Northalsted Market Days months ago (thanks, Jamie!), I immediately put a reminder in my calendar. Simply to hear her sing that song live was a bucket list item I needed to cross off. I mean, the song was essentially written with her lion’s roar of a voice in mind. Any other actress, including Ms. Hudson, are merely following a template created for Holliday.

After waiting at the main stage for 15 minutes past start time, the show finally got going. And, I’m happy to report, the girl still got it. She hits the notes and growls out those phrases as only she can. Her vibrato is manufactured by the flapping of her jaw, which is both marvelous and insane all at once. She proves why there is, and always will be, only one Jennifer Holliday. All the rest are mere imitation.

But she’s also one of the most uncomfortable creatures I’ve ever seen onstage. As an example of her awkward physicality, she wore this beaded coat that she nervously held clasped with her hand — a literal and metaphorical means of protecting herself from exposure. She seems very frail, too, moving slowly and cautiously about the stage. There’s little connection between the words she’s singing and her body language. Only during her two big Dreamgirls numbers (“I Am Changing” and “And I’m Telling You”) did she get some life in her.

However, she seemed genuinely touched by her fan base and the support we were giving her. I just get the sense she’s out of practice performing for such rowdy, large groups. We freaked her out a bit.

Ann Hampton Callaway opens Mayne Stage with style

There are some performers who, when faced with two shows in a single evening, hole themselves up in their dressing room to recharge between performances.

And then there’s Ann Hampton Callaway, who, after singing her heart out for 1.5 hours to a sold-out crowd, casually strolls into the handsome Mayne Stage lobby and sits in a booth at the attached restaurant, where she then holds court with her fans up until the 15 minute call for her 10 p.m. show.

This is an entirely approachable charmer, on and off the stage.

During my very brief conversation with AHC in that booth, I asked her about “Singer’s Spotlight” — a public television series hosted by AHC that celebrates the American songbook and its great interpreters. Liza Minnelli and Christine Ebersole were her two guests in the show’s tryout airings a few years ago, yet nothing’s happened with it since. According to AHC, the show is looking for funding to get it off the ground, but she is hoping to produce it in the meantime as a radio series. “I think it’s so important to keep these songs alive, and let kids know there’s more to performing than American Idol,” she said to me.

Ann Hampton Callaway and I manage to find the most unflattering lighting ever -- and pose.

AHC will also be bringing “Boom,” the new show she developed with her equally talented sister, Liz, to Schaumburg this fall — Sept 11, to be exact. (She said that they will have to change the show’s name, considering the date.)

But back to to last night’s performance. With a voice that seems limitless in range, energy and style, this woman can sing. I had mentioned in a previous post that she’s the love child of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. And guess what? She honored these three ladies by singing a few songs in their unique style. Uncanny.

What a grand way to open this exciting new Rogers Park venue — a space that’s brimming with potential in an area of town that’s quickly becoming a significant cultural center.

I think AHC is the first major act they’ve booked, and it’s clear they have some kinks to work out. Mainly: the valet (chaotic and slow), the cocktail service in the theatre (overwhelmed) and the food at the attached Act One Cafe (barely edible).

Furthermore, as my friend Steve quickly pointed out, the sound in the space is in severe need of an overhaul. The speakers are high above the stage and pointed to the back of the house, which is completely counter-intuitive to Mayne Stage’s intimate space. We had front row seats, and the sound we heard was the echo bouncing off the back wall. They need a front fill, or whatever you call it, to make the aural experience pleasurable for the entire audience — not just for those in the last three rows.

However, these are mostly minor things that can be worked out over time. I hope they continue to bring in top talent — and promote the hell out of it! — to ensure this venue finds its footing.

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