Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 18, 2010
All About Me A Showbiz Entertainment. Written by Christopher Durang and Barry Humphries. Conceived by Barry Humphries, with Lizzie Spender and Terrence Flannery. Directed by Casey Nicholaw. Music Supervisor Rob Bowman. Scenic & costume design by Anna Louizos. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Dame Edna’s gowns by Stephen Adnitt. Video design by Chris Cronin. Orchestrations by John Oddo. Additional arrangements by Glen Kelly. Music Coordinator Michael Keller. Cast: Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna, with Gregory Butler, Jodi Capeless, Jon-Paul Mateo.
Yes, both readings of that last sentence are more or less correct. Feinstein, a suave, sunny, and talented singer who’s essentially memorized the Great American Songbook, can hold a real nightclub in his thrall, but needs more time and intimacy to establish and maintain his grip than his moments here onstage permit. Dame Edna has regularly frothed audiences into a fizzy fury with her unique brand of loving insult comedy, which - like her much-beloved gladiolas - needs room, light, and plenty of fertilizer to grow; but she’s limited to a 15-minute bit that makes the audience beg for more, and then doesn’t give it to them.
Because neither Dame Edna nor Feinstein is Gypsy Rose Lee, the constant back and forth between the two encourages an atmosphere of uneasy expectations that are never precisely violated but also never fulfilled. The evening’s script - written by acclaimed comic playwright Christopher Durang and Dame Edna’s devoted manager Barry Humphries, and conceived by Humphries with Lizzie Spender and Terrence Flannery - tries to make the show’s inability to get off the ground part of the show, but only succeeds at making you realize how far each performer could fly if simply left alone.
The opening set is Feinstein’s, a predictably energizing trip down musical memory lane with classics like “Strike Up the Band” (given a highly energetic rendering) and the sensitively sung “My Romance,” as well as a peppy newcomer (by Matthew Sklar and Chad Begulin, the songwriters of the Broadway musical The Wedding Singer called “Make That Piano Sing.” Feinstein’s “The Lady Is a Tramp” all but escorts in Dame Edna, who floats in, dispenses with the interloping Feinstein (thanks to her dancing security detail, comprising Gregory Butler and Jon-Paul Mateo), mocks the audience into stitches, and then... what?
Good question. The theater is double-booked; Dame Edna didn’t even know about the rehearsals (she prefers spontaneity, you see); the stage manager (Jodi Capeless) pulls a roll of tape down the center of the stage to give them each space; they have to find things they can stand doing together, like singing about koalas and... never mind. This is, shall we say, not Durang at his cleverest; even his last (and one of his least) new play in New York, Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, managed more consistent, honest laughter than the canned gags he recycles here.
Unfortunately, Feinstein, though a gifted vocalist is neither much of an actor nor a comedian. And Dame Edna, who invariably busts guts when left to her own devices, is hampered by a far too reasonable script and can’t compete with her costar’s voice even on the “parodic character singing” level. (She guzzles her way through an admirable version of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” but you won’t exactly leave recalling the pristine clarity of her delivery, or for that matter anything but the self-picky mannerisms she employs throughout.) And when Feinstein and Dame Edna must join forces on an endless late-show medley of standards real and imagined, the cheesy chintziness would give Las Vegas a stroke.
Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw does nothing to discourage this, which only further emphasizes the disparities that already exist. Feinstein and Dame Edna both possess a keen ability to know how far they can push themselves without becoming complete caricatures, but they toe the line far too often here. (The set - by Anna Louizos, who also designed the sequin-heavy costumes - is part Big Band platform and part airport lounge, further muddying the presiding sensibilities.) Dame Edna’s bitchy giddiness seems forced rather than free whenever she’s not communing with the audience, and Feinstein’s natural charm congeals when the constraints of the show force him to (as but one of several examples) sing most of the score to Oklahoma! in the one minute the dictatorial (and fame-hungry) stage manager allots. Such antics are supposed to be frantic, unpredictable, and delightful - they never quite seem to be any of the three.
The blending of the duo’s oil-and-water personalities works only twice, both of which precede the action proper. The first is when you enter the theater, and you’re handed one of two Playbills, each with a different cover and insert that stresses you are to see one - and only one - star this evening. (Under no circumstance should you leave the theater without both.) The second is the introductory music, which mashes together overtures and distinctive themes from a number of iconic Broadway musicals as diverse as Sweet Charity, A Chorus Line, Rent, and Cabaret.
During that sequence, another bizarre mating occurs when Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Jellicle Ball theme from Cats invades the more delicate and lyrical strains of - you guessed it - Stephen Sondheim. Those two landmark musical theatre figures, whose shared birthday is only days away, would probably produce an unbelievable and unmissable show if they deigned to work with each other: Their talents would complement each other, with their unique approaches and viewpoints pushing the other to heretofore unimagined places. That would be true collaboration among opposite equals, unlike All About Me, which diminishes, rather than increases, its individual elements’ usual luminance.