by Rob Lester
With disarming energy and a wide-eyed innocent eager-beaver look that can flip into a winking cat-that-swallowed-the-canary mischievous grin, Michael Hughes joyfully bounds onto the stage and jumps into his life story about his obsession with Broadway and movie musicals that began as a toddler. Actually professional since childhood, he's done stage roles, film, a TV series and commercials, but doesn't name-drop those in his musical memoir. It's more about being the misfit child with a fixation for musicals, and the one-hour solo act is about 60% singing and 40% well-honed, lively spoken recollections.
Judy Garland was/is the favorite performer of this gregarious guy, who is himself a solid musical-comedy performer and Garland's trademark songs supply the bulk of bubbly Hughes's well-sung material in his show at Greenwich Village's Duplex Cabaret Theatre. (It opened this week, with two more performances: Saturday, September 15 and Thursday, September 20, both at 7 pm). But there's much more. There's Gypsy's defiant declaration of independence, "Some People," to define his drive and individualism. He has a couple of Kander & Ebb numbers, too. There's "Dressing Them Up" (Kiss of the Spider Woman) as he recalls enthusiastically kidnapping his sisters' dolls and giving them new dramatic wardrobes and hair styleswhich extended to his own fantasy dress-up tastes-and that famous number that gave the film New York, New York its title and became an anthem for the city and for those who feel its pull to "make it there." The talented Toronto native is one of the many who felt that way (and his impressive performance in a multi-performer show during his last trip to NYC, in 2009, was my first exposure to him, and I've been following his progress long distance since: his being chosen in a competition to be in producer David Foster's tour when he was allowed a night off from the Canadian cast of All Shook Up, playing Dean, his solo pop CD, his entry into cabaret at home, and his strong reviews for his just-completed performances in Europe).
Certainly that "Let's put on a show!" common plot of those films defined his childhood of make-believe and playing characters constantlysomething that was so extreme and intense that his parents brought him to a child psychiatrist. This becomes a major element of the showwith lighthearted but interesting recollections, many refreshed in his memory when the same doctor brought him in a few years ago for a follow-up study on former patients and he got access to the extensive notes taken at the time. He gamely quotes from them, with distance that makes it non-voyeuristic and very comfortable for him and us, knowing well which will get audience laughs. Some of those giggles and guffaws seemed to be tinged with familiarity from spectators who also were born performers or who didn't follow the strict gender roles and expected behaviors society imposes in any generation. The dolls and dresses weren't locked up, but a neighborhood boy was "hired" to teach him to learn how to play with GI Joe toy army menwhich little Mickey wanted to line up as chorus boys and create "a Broadway-style revue." You get the idea.
I find Mickey and Mickey & Judy thoroughly delightful and entertaining, but on the constructive side, I think it could benefit from being expanded and going deeper. His innate honesty and sensitivityand performance skillscould allow him to make this a richer and more moving piece if he decides to let it turn a more emotional corner and "go there." The angst, uncertainty, and searching he skims overin an admirable desire not to be self-indulgent, but rather more universal and put the spotlight on dazzle and dreams instead of dramacould be dipped into, should he wish. I think the audience would embrace him for this and he'd touch our hearts even more. The show is heartfelt, especially in the Gershwins' "But Not for Me"; and if some of the numbers' piano arrangements were more personalized, rather than the by-the-music book, standard Garland standards' approach and salutes, that would bring an already fine show to a refined and newly defined level. Now, it's (in the best sense of the word) sweet as well as sincere and sure-footed in its choice to be breezy and buoyant ... and is a true pleasure. And that's plenty. At the Duplex, Michael Hughes has charisma and energy is unstoppable. Stop in.
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The Duplex is at 61 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, NYC (corner of Seventh Avenue; take the #1 subway to Christopher Street). Regular admission is $10. There is also a two-drink minimum (the minimum applies to most contest winners). Mickey & Judy runs September 15 and 20, both at 7 pm. Reservations can be made online for this and other shows at the venue's Cabaret Calendar page.