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Oh, the Drama of It!

Reports on the 2004 Drama Desk Awards, the cabaret debut of Sutton Foster, and the return of icon Keely Smith. logo
Harvey Fierstein
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Sunday night's Drama Desk Awards show should not be remembered for the unfortunate clerical error that led to Joe Mantello being announced as winner of the Outstanding Director award for Assassins when, in reality, he was honored for Wicked. It's too bad that the mistake wasn't caught during the ceremony so that it could have been corrected on stage, thus allowing Mantello the opportunity to thank the Wicked folks in the moment. Be that as it may, the DDs were a highly enjoyable event, well paced and fueled with considerable star power. Awards ceremonies with modest amounts of entertainment and lots of speeches can be the show business equivalent of a warm glass of milk, but this one was as bracing as a double espresso coupled with the after-dinner-liqueur sweetness of thank you speeches -- plus a contrasting bite courtesy of host Harvey Fierstein.

Simply put, Fierstein was the best host that the Drama Desk Awards have had since the show went public; he was funny, dicey, dangerous, and entirely lovable. He was also much more in evidence throughout the evening than some previous hosts, who seemed to appear just at the beginning and the end of the show. Aside from Fierstein's star power and charisma, the event boasted such presenters as Shirley Jones, Christopher Plummer, John Lithgow, Tovah Feldshuh, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Audra MacDonald, Sean Combs, and Hugh Jackman. One of the most entertaining pairs of presenters consisted of John Tartaglia (with the puppet Rod) from Avenue Q and Jai Rodriguez. Rod's gay flirtation with Rodriguez was hilarious.

Happily, none of the big-ticket musicals steamrolled through the awards in the way that The Producers and Hairspray had done in years past. The winners were fairly evenly spread around and that led to a good deal of suspense throughout the evening. Perhaps the most heartwarming moment of the night came with the announcement of Outstanding Actress in a Play: It was a tie between Viola Davis (Intimate Apparel) and Phylicia Rashad (A Raisin in the Sun). Longtime friends, the two women ran into each other's arms on stage, clearly overjoyed to share the award.

For our taste, there is never enough musical entertainment in shows of this nature. Among the nominees that were represented, Toxic Audio surely sold some tickets to their Off-Broadway show with their performance of "Turn the Beat Around." Big River is no longer on the boards but Michael McElroy sure made us wish it was with his stirring rendition of "Free at Last." Judy McLane (from Johnny Guitar) and Euan Morton (from Taboo) also did well, but the cast of The Musical of Musicals: The Musical could have chosen a funnier and more representative piece from their show to help promote their return engagement this summer at the York Theatre.

Not part of the show but certainly part of the proceedings were the pre- and post-show parties. The spacious Club Black turned out to be a great venue for the celebration that kicked things off in the late afternoon, a great opportunity to rub shoulders with the likes of André De Shields, Judy McLane, and other performers. The post-show bash at Compass was even more star-studded: Kathleen Marshall, Joe Mantello, Brían O'Bryne, Euan Morton, and many others were on hand. The most starry party of them all was the pre-show event held at La Guardia High School, where the show took place, because all the stars had to pass through it to get to the concert hall. Unfortunately, that soirée was a mash of too many people in too small a space. You didn't just rub shoulders with stars at this gathering, you shared each other's DNA.

All of these parties and, of course, the show itself were notable for a true sense of theatrical community. Among the nominees were Michael Berry (Moby Dick), Mary Testa (First Lady Suite), and Lizan Mitchell (Trojan Woman), all representing small venue shows seen by a total audience roughly equivalent to the attendance at just a few performances of Wicked. The size of the venues did not matter, only the size of the talent. William Wolf, president of the Drama Desk, set the tone of the evening with his warm and gracious opening remarks. The speeches that followed -- other than some of Harvey Fierstein's! -- reflected the same sort of respect and admiration. It was a wonderful night for the New York theater.


Sutton Foster
(Photo © Tim Schultheis)
The Sutton Tsunami!

The American Songbook series at Lincoln Center recently showcased Tony Award winner Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie) in her first-ever cabaret show. There were two performances on the same evening; we were at the 11 o'clock show, during which lightning flashed and thunder rolled outside the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the panoramic Kaplan Penthouse. But that was nothing compared to the tsunami in the cabaret room. Foster herself was a force of nature, creating wave after wave of tumultuous applause. Her opening number was "Something's Coming" (Bernstein-Sondheim), but this performer has already arrived.

Soaring on musical director Michael Rafter's inspired arrangements, Foster melded old and new songs with uncommon originality, including a gorgeous combination of "My Romance" (Rodgers & Hart) with "Danglin'" (Maury Yeston). She was ferociously funny when performing "Lunch Hour" (Rupert Holmes) and deeply moving in her rendition of "Come the Wild, Wild Weather," which she movingly linked to her relationship with her brother, Hunter Foster.

If the ultimate goal of any cabaret performer is to express his or her personality through the prism of talent, then Sutton Foster leapt to the forefront of the art form in just one night. Her voice is so versatile that she can belt with the best of them or sing with sweet tenderness; she can be warm, kooky, fiery, and deeply sensitive. So many theater stars try their hand at cabaret and only end up concretizing because they don't understand that the key to cabaret is being yourself on stage. Sutton Foster gets it -- totally! We can only hope, for the sake of those who did not get a chance to experience her at the Kaplan Center, that she'll perform this show in other venues as often as her schedule allows. And if she records it, the CD will fly off the shelves.


Keely Smith with Michael Feinstein
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
A Lifetime of Experience

At the other end of the experience spectrum there is Keely Smith, who just opened at Feinstein's at the Regency. Backed by an extraordinary eight-piece band, Smith recreates Las Vegas '58 in a show that features her singing some of greatest hits of the late Louis Prima's, her onetime husband and professional partner. The lady's voice still sounds like the Keely Smith of old despite the fact that she's a grandmother many times over. As far as her patter is concerned, she gets away with all sorts of salty, sex-related jokes that are funny precisely because they're coming from a woman her age.

But don't go to see this show for the comedy; go for the music. The most amazing thing happened to us during the medley of Prima songs near the end of the show: Smith and the band kept getting hotter and hotter until they reached a point where both of us actually started crying from the sheer joy of their musical exuberance. Talk about being lifted! It was a moment we will never forget.

We've caught Keely Smith in her two previous gigs at Feinstein's but this show is the most astounding by far; it's the closest thing to a genuine big band sound that you may ever hear in a club of this size. These musicians are to die for. The recreation of the music of Vegas '58 sounds entirely authentic, and why not? Keely Smith was there -- and she'll make you feel as if you were, too.


[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at [email protected].]

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