Richard and I saw this show at the 92nd St Y on 2/9, it’s part of their Lyrics and Lyricists series.
It was a tribute to the women in Hollywood musicals, from 1930 to 1960. The draw of the show was the great Charles Busch, playwright and actor - - *Die, Mommie, Die*, *The Divine Sister*, we see almost every show he does. He co-wrote/co-created this show with Carl Andress, who has directed most of Busch’s plays.
The format was this: five women sang, danced, performed the songs. They had a strong backup band of piano, drums, guitar, bass, and one guy alternating between flute, clarinet, saxophone. Busch told stories in between songs. The weak link in the show, surprisingly enough, was Busch. He was very tied to his script, he wasn’t looking up even half the time. No excuse for that. And he made the bad choice to perform two numbers: he did Dietrich doing “The boys in the backroom”, which went over like a lead balloon. It was unwise of him to put himself onstage delivering a song, surrounded by real pros. The five women varied in their abilities (more about that in a minute), but they were all seasoned professionals and knew what they were doing. Busch seemed like a real amateur, and not in a way that was cute or charming. One other note about Busch: we’re not used to seeing him dressed as a man, he’s made his career playing female roles. He was wearing a black suit and a strange brown and black plaid sweater, and also wearing the worst rug I’ve ever seen onstage. Was it a satire on a toupee? It was not appealing, and not in the least bit convincing.
I’ll rank the five women from weakest to strongest:
Nice voice, a winning stage presence, but was another lead balloon doing “Put the blame on Mame”. A little too perky for that number - - she had a strut and should have had a saunter. And she never quite made it to the top notes in “Ah, sweet mystery of life”. You could tell she was trying.
Very strong voice, a real belter. Tall and very slim - - I asked Richard if it would be rude for me to call her “a singing swizzle stick”, and he said, “Yes.” Her voice was a little grating. I’d never heard Mae West’s “Now I’m a lady” and I think it might be a pretty stupid song, but she didn’t help things with her mush-mouthed West impersonation.
Gorgeous and a wonderful voice. The vibrato was maybe a little too loose now and then (especially for someone as young as she is), but she generally sounded great. She was totally adorable doing “The lady in the tutti frutti hat” - - she was referencing Carmen Miranda without actually impersonating her. I liked her a lot, would like to see her again.
Is it an accident that the two strongest performers were the only two I had seen before? Huffman won a Tony for playing Ulla in *The Producers* - - I saw that show much later in the run, but did see her in *The Nance*. She’s a skilled singer, can belt but can also purr, and you get every word. Really takes command of the stage. She did a lovely job with “You’ll never know”, made the song her own without turning it upside down. And she stopped the show with Betty Hutton’s “Rumble rumble rumble”, she nailed the manic energy that was Hutton, who Bob Hope called “a vitamin pill with legs.”
What a knockout. Broad-ranging, pretty voice, effortless stage presence. Richard and I saw her as the leading lady’s best friend in *Far From Heaven* off Broadway a few years ago, and she was very good in that show but blew me away in this show. She was cute but not cloying as Shirley Temple singing “The codfish ball” (what an adorable song, BTW), she showed off her legit operetta pipes in Jane Powell’s “It’s a most unusual day”, but the real shocker was Dorothy Lamour’s “The moon of Manakoora”. Anderson is a soprano, and was singing the highest note in the final chord of every group number, always sounded easy and secure. But “The moon of Manakoora” was done in a low key, and showed off a lovely, dark, somewhat husky color in her voice. It was not just the high point of the show, it was one of those unforgettable moments in the theatre. A gorgeous song, beautiful harmonies, and she sang it so beautifully. She was greatly aided by the arrangement - - I said to Richard at the intermission, “The band is good and the arrangements are good, but they could vary it a little more. Like they could have done ‘You’ll never know’ with just the guitar, that makes it more special, gives the audience something different to hear.” Well, they must have heard me, because “The moon of Manakoora” was scored for ukulele and clarinet. It was haunting, beautiful, and like I said, unforgettable.
A few other notes: the wind player was very good on the clarinet and saxophone, but his flute playing was consistently a quarter step flat. Made me cringe every time he came in, nearly ruined the two songs where he played flute. Again, no excuse.
Young, Anderson, and Burns did an Andrews Sisters medley that went on a little too long. Three songs would have been enough, we didn’t need five. The glory of the Andrews Sisters is that their voices blended together so brilliantly - - it came easier to them because they were sisters, their voices were similar, physiologically speaking. These three women sounded good together, but it was a pale shadow of what the Andrews Sisters did. A shorter medley wouldn’t have pointed that out so much.
Busch gave us a cute quote by Lubitsch: “I’ve been to Paris, and I prefer Paramount Paris.” And Busch told a very funny story about a show he wrote and starred in a show called *Swingtime Canteen*, back in the 80s. He played a glamorous Hollywood leading lady, a Norma Shearer type, on the road with the USO performing for the troops. The producers felt like the show needed a boost, so they brought in Maxine Andrews to play one of the roles. She didn’t quite get the format of the show, and now and then she’d say to the audience, “I’m havin’ such fun in this show - - and him, isn’t he great?”