With his show Fabulous Divas of Broadway, writer, director, and performer Alan Palmer deserves credit for tackling this question. Unfortunately, his one-man, 32-woman theatrical cabaret leaves one wondering whether he should have. He may assume the mantles and manners of Broadway’s loftiest leading ladies, but his rickety tribute doesn’t suggest a new male star is in ascendance.
“This evening is not about doing impressions,” he says of the women he portrays, “it’s trying to show you what impressions they made on my life.” That statement is a wise inclusion, instantly excusing how astute his impressions aren’t. Palmer dons plenty of creditable costumes (by C. Buckey), but he spends most of his time proving that the clothes don’t make the man - or the woman.
Palmer’s Chita Rivera (in full Kiss of the Spider Woman garb) is all campy hand waving and eyebrow-raising that approximate her exterior appearance but don’t tap into the blithe intensity on which her talent trades. As Patti LuPone in Anything Goes, he lacks both the go-for-broke attitude and belt that make her a recognizable and controversial headliner. And it’s hard to believe that Andrea McArdle left so little impression on Palmer during Annie (Palmer’s first Broadway show) that his idea of paying tribute is mocking her gestures during “Tomorrow.”
The bigger the legend, the smaller Palmer becomes. Despite filling out a white ball gown and mastering that characteristic vocal flip, Palmer finds none of the real Ethel Merman’s abrasively brassy warmth when singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” He sputters through back-to-back evocations of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli with little more than a wig switch, locating in neither the tremendous gifts nor equally pervasive pain that have endeared them to generations of fans. And he gives Barbra Streisand no legitimate reason to sing “I’m the Greatest Star” - the tones he produces are none that anyone could (or would) get for you wholesale.
In fairness, Palmer admitted (after a croak-filled “Ring Them Bells”) that he was still recovering from laryngitis, so it’s possible the pieces of his portrayals will eventually click into place. Frankly, I doubt it. His characterizations are so rudimentary, the problem transcends voice; and if, as he claims, the show is really about him, none of his stories (about mounting shows in his basement or accidentally destroying his father’s piano) are themselves compelling enough to pick up the slack. When the most vivid scenes focus on the audience and not the star (there’s a game of “Name That Diva!”, a Mad-Lib resetting of “What I Did For Love,” and a volunteer kick line for the Hello, Dolly! finale), the singing isn’t the most serious issue.
Palmer’s only human turn is also his most unexpected. In his final number, he stows his dresses and high heels in favor of Peter Allen. Yet there’s not a trace of flamboyance or personal delusion during his rendition of “All the Lives of Me.” If you can’t tell whether he’s playing Allen straight up, with the twist of Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz, or even (gasp) singing the song as himself, the number is a rare glimpse of naked humility from a man who seems determined to hide behind clothes.
The rest of the time he’s trying too hard, to be clever (was that Harvey Fierstein?), to be hip (Hairspray and Wicked get brief nods), or to be inside (he dons a dummy at one point to sing a song from Side Show). Maybe all this was droll enough to pack houses in Los Angeles, where the show originated. But in the heart of Manhattan, where female celebrity impressions from the likes of Richard Skipper, Steven Brinberg, and Tommy Femia are among the most sophisticated you’ll find, Palmer’s well-intentioned but half-hearted attempts remain best suited for the bathroom.
Fabulous Divas of Broadway