Triangle Arts and Entertainment – News and Reviews Theatre Dance Music Arts

Sassy Alan Cumming Brings Sappy Tunes to Bull City

Alan Cumming at Carnegie hall, photo by Tré.

Read Dustin K. Britt’s preview of Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs.

Backstage at Studio 54, after a performance of the 2014 revival of Cabaret (his second time in the role) lead actor Alan Cumming is hosting a miniature party. A neon sign identifies his dressing room as “Club Cumming.” Celebrities and close friends sneak backstage to listen to fabulous music, schmooze with the Master of Ceremonies himself, and imbibe a terrific amount of alcohol sponsored by Campari America®.

Once Cabaret closes and An Act of God moves into Studio 54, Club Cumming needs a new space. Deciding to perform his own songs, the Tony®-award winner stages an intimate 2016 cabaret of his own at the Café Carlyle on Manhattan’s East 76th Street.

He interprets pop, traditional, and theatre songs, recording the event as a new album–Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: Live at the Cafe Carlyle–and takes the show on the road. This is not Cumming’s first time at the rodeo. In 2009 he released his first solo album, I Bought a Blue Car Today, accompanying a tour of the same name.

On Thursday, April 27, the now mobile Club Cumming stopped at the Durham Performing Arts Center, with musical director/pianist/vocalist Lance Horne, cellist Eleanor Norton, and drummer-guitarist Chris Jego fleshing out the sound. All three proved to be musicians of the highest caliber, but Norton’s work is worth the ticket price all on its own.

The title Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs appears tongue-in-cheek, but is quickly revealed to be forthright. In the beautifully-lit show, The Master of Ceremonies sings well-known passionate anthems and lesser-known ballads, interspersed with anecdotes from his personal and professional lives. Though a couple of original songs are openly silly (a Trojan Condom jingle, an Adele/Lady Gaga/Katy Perry mash-up called “Someone Like the Edge of Firework”, and a cheeky tribute to Stephen Sondheim entitled “No One Is Alive, Not While I’m Around”) most are unironically heartfelt.

Each song is accompanied by a story (either touching, dryly funny, or a swirl of the two) providing context and–often importantly–justification for its inclusion. Cumming makes it immediately clear that he is not playing by the rules of the Broadway lounge act, launching immediately into Annie Lennox’s “Why” and Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know”. His heartfelt renditions, with stripped-down instrumentation but increased vocal power, captivate and entertain. His heavy Scottish accent paints these songs with new color.

The Good Wife star confides in the crowd of hundreds, discussing his dramatic episode of BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, connecting Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb” and Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon” to his grandfather’s military service, while paying respects to those who–like Cumming himself–live with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

He takes us on a tour through Europe with Hue and Cry’s “Mother Glasgow” (complete with an explanation of Glaswegian slang), Jean Renoir’s “Complainte de la Butte”, and “How Do Humans Live” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

The evening’s emotional peak comes when our host speaks of his traumatic relationship with his father, detailed in his memoir Not My Father’s Son. He leaves the audience, himself, and even the band with wet cheeks during “Dinner At Eight” by Rufus Wainwright.

Alan Cumming at Carnegie hall, photo by Tré.

The fit fifty-something’s musical theatre work, openness about his bisexuality, and activism in the areas of LGBT rights and AIDS research have elevated him to the rank of queer icon. And his Twitter activity proves him as anything but apolitical. He threw some thick political shade at North Carolina and President Trump–one jab receiving a sincere standing ovation from the left-leaning crowd. His statement that our state needs more–not fewer–queer artists to storm across our stages had many of us on our feet in support.

In the 100-minute show, I could have used two or three more songs, via extension of the event or reduction of chatty bits, poignant as they are. The show’s success depends on the intimacy between Cumming and his audience and the half-full DPAC felt too airy. While he is able to hold our attention, a smaller space like Durham’s Carolina Theatre would make the show bigger by contrast and perhaps have even greater emotional impact when the entire audience can see his face.

Some songs seemed initially inapt and garnered chuckles, but Cumming’s impassioned–and never ironic–delivery dampened those flames. Besides, if you are laughing at his choice of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” you were not paying attention to his story of a complex relationship with a tattooed cowboy. The sublime encore’s title will not be revealed by me. Suffice it to say, it involves a grand piano and a martini raised high above the head.

Kicking yourself for missing the show? Fear not. You have another shot. Sappy Songs returns on Sunday, April 30 for an evening at Charlotte’s Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. If you are in New York’s East Village this September, you could might him at the opening of his new club: Club Cumming.

Alan Cumming at Carnegie hall, photo by Tré.

SECOND OPINION: April 21 Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Ed Condran: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article145428719.html; Charlotte Observer preview by Courtney Devores: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/music-news-reviews/article146913379.html

SHOW: https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/alan-cumming-sings-sappy-songs and https://www.facebook.com/events/1154702901288282/, http://www.alancumming.com/sappy-songs-alan-in-concert/

ARTIST: http://www.alancumming.com/

PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://twitter.com/DPAC, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center.

OTHER LINKS:

Alan Cumming’s Amazon Page: https://www.amazon.com/Alan-Cumming/e/B001H9R9D4

Alan Cumming (actor): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001086/ (Internet Movie Database); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Cumming (Wikipedia); https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/alan-cumming-36849 (Internet Broadway Database)

Alan Cumming on social media: @alancumming (Twitter); alancummingsnaps (Instagram); https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alan-Cumming/109506412402481 (Facebook).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is a local actor and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. degree in Special Education from East Carolina University. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can also find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt, on Twitter @dkbritt85, and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews