Dame Edna(Photo © David Allen)
Dame Edna
(Photo © David Allen)
The Girl From Oz -- Dame Edna -- has returned to Broadway, and with a show this riotously funny, she's going to be around for a very long time. Dame Edna (aka Barry Humphries) has the cheek of Don Rickles, the comic timing of Jackie Mason, and the womanly figure of Milton Berle. Her singular virtue, however, is that no other comedian better uses an audience. Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance! is so interactive that, without the help of the theatergoers that she targets, the star would hardly have an act at all.

This show is the closest thing to an evening of improv that you'll find on Broadway. Though it includes some consistently funny, scripted patter about Dame Edna's three children, her late husband, etc., the vast bulk of the show is devoted to Edna interacting with the audience and, in particular, with a random handful of ticket-buyers in the first several rows of the orchestra. She plays her patrons like a virtuoso, asking seemingly innocent questions that leave them exposed to her hilarious comments. Her gift is that her jibes are funny yet inoffensive. More than once during the course of a show, she will glibly protest: "I don't pick on people, I empower them." Obviously, much of what she says comes from a grab bag of pre-prepared material, but even these "ad libs" are delivered with such spontaneity that she always makes them seem original. At the performance we attended,she found a 10-year old girl in the audience. With her eyes arched as high as her heels, Dame Edna wondered aloud, "What wonderful parents thought to bring you to THIS show?" The audience howled.

Returning to Broadway after her first triumph here four years ago, Dame Edna is definitely "back with a vengeance." That phrase is not only the subtitle of the show, it's also the title of one of her big musical production numbers. With Edna's charming musical director, Wayne Barker, at the piano, this delightfully nutty disco song features her talented and attractive dancers, "The Gorgeous Ednaettes" (Teri, DiGianFelice, Michelle Pampena) and "The Equally Gorgeous TestEdnarones" (Randy Aaron, Gerrard Carter). In fact all of Edna's original songs are wacky and witty, with lyrics that are sharply observant.

Dame Edna and company inDame Edna: Back With a Vengeance!(Photo © David Allen)
Dame Edna and company in
Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance!
(Photo © David Allen)
A major appeal of any Dame Edna show is the sense that each performance is different; much of the comedy is so dependent upon whom she chooses to talk with and what they say that you feel as if you could come back another night and have an almost entirely different experience. For instance, when we attended, Edna brought a young couple to the stage in order to give them some marriage counseling -- and what a boon it was that the husband turned out to be a psychologist! The audience roared when that news was revealed. Better still, when Dame Edna got on the telephone and called one of their relatives -- live, of course, with the conversation piped through the sound system for the benefit of the audience -- the woman on the other end of the line had no idea who Dame Edna was. Time after time, the relative kept asking, "Who is this?" Edna's reactions were priceless. In addition to being a gifted writer, Barry Humphries is a very good actor; in the guise of Dame Edna, he uses his face like a contortionist, his every grimace a gag and his every pout a punchline.

Dame Edna is very much the star of the show, but the entire audience -- not just a handful of people from the first few rows -- is part of the cast. She's not playing TO us; she's playing WITH us. In addition to questioning presumably wealthy people in the orchestra, she comically addresses and refers to the "paupers" in the balcony -- and the paupers, now part of the show, love it. The same inclusiveness occurs during her signature finale, when she tosses gladioli to the audience; not content to reach only the front of the audience, she also hurls the flowers into the balcony.

The show is devised and written by Humphries, with additional material by Andrew Ross and Robert Horn. The set design by Brian Thomson and costumes by Will Goodwin and Stephen Adnitt are complements of splendiferous excess. From a glittering New York City skyline that has nothing to do with actual geography to a dress that includes the Statue of Liberty in its design, the clear intent of every aspect of this show --and the clear result -- is pure fun.