George S. Irving is unquestionably a "phone book" performer, one of that rare breed you feel could make the singing of anything - even the phone book - sublimely entertaining. That's a good thing, because there were certainly moments during his new solo show Still Carrying On, which completes its run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre today, when I thought he would soon turn to the Yellow Pages for his next bit of material.
To call his selection of songs and stories eclectic would be kind. While it must be said that he won't let down any who have come to hear him recreate some of the songs he originated in hit (and otherwise) Broadway shows over the course of his 63-year career, his choice of additional material, which ranges from music hall numbers to Tchaikovsky to entertaining anecdotes related him by other performers, may leave some scratching their heads.
And anyone expecting much real insight from Irving about his life or career is likely to be disappointed. This is not a solo show of the Elaine Stritch At Liberty or the Bea Arthur on Broadway variety; it has a very stream-of-consciousness construction that conspicuously avoids most explicit details in matters personal or professional. (There are but a few, mostly passing, references to his wife of over 50 years, Broadway star Maria Karnilova.) Though the opening moments of the show suggest the show will be a traditional musical biography, it's not long before it's clear that Irving - and not Irving's life - is in control of the proceedings.
At least you're in good hands - Irving remains a consummate performer and a superb singer. If his high notes don't boom quite the way they once did, he still has firm control over them, and can easily unleash them to glorious effect. Beyond that, his sense of comedy and ability to sell a song, whether a comic trifle or a plangently emotional ballad, remains intact. Irving is still a charismatic and extremely funny character man, the type who - as he explains - died onstage more often than he got the girl.
It's because of Irving's abundant gifts that Still Carrying On cries out for a stronger structure, something that will allow both him and the audience to ease into the show, rather than meeting everything head on, as if from out of nowhere. At the performance I attended, Irving lost his place at least twice, though who could blame him? The show is little more than a collection of bits, connected only by Irving's masterful ability to make each and every one of them work, and it can't be much easier for the actor to conceptualize than it is for the audience.
How many performers, after all, would devote the final nine minutes of their first act to a comedy routine about the United Nations financing itself with commercials during its sessions? And how many could possibly pull it off? Similarly, when Irving launches into a song about a Russian ballet dancer (inserted, Irving says, because he lives near Lincoln Center and frequently attends the ballet) or even a song in Russian (Tchaikovsky's "At the Ball"), you may instinctively know the transitions are tenuous or that you aren't really learning anything about the man, but he's so good, it just doesn't seem to matter.
Donald Saddler has given Irving some effective (but minimal) staging and choreography; Mark Hartman has provided excellent musical direction and piano playing. Nicholas Keslake designed the lights, and Alden Fulcomer's sound seemed so natural, I never would have known of its existence if not for his program credit.
Most of Still Carrying On seems considerably less organic than that, though Irving's magnetic stage presence and apparently limitless talent do an excellent job of concealing the seams. And as soon as he begins delivering still-definitive performances of songs like "I'm a 'Tingle, I'm a 'Glow" (from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) or "The Butler's Song" (one of his most closely identified numbers, from So Long 174th Street), he seems, at 81, like one of the most youthful and resourceful performers working today.
While one can't help but wish that he would get more of the high-profile jobs he deserves in New York, if a middling, muddled effort like Still Carrying On is the only place to see him in NYC, it's more than worth it. If Irving is planning to continue to develop and perform the show - and he should - additional structure and focus would only improve it. At least he's got the entertainment portion of the evening well covered.
White Barn Theatre