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Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs at Café Carlyle

The star of Broadway's Cabaret and soon-to-be host of the Tony Awards makes his Café Carlyle debut.

Alan Cumming (center), backed up by musicians Lance Horne, Eleanor Norton, and Chris Jego, performs in Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs at Café Carlyle.
(© Michael Wilhoite)

There's something subtly transgressive about Alan Cumming's show at the Café Carlyle. You feel that the moment he trots out Miley Cyrus' "The Climb" from the Hannah Montana movie soundtrack. Yes, he's singing trite lyrics with sincere gusto, but...is he punking us? You'll never really get a satisfactory answer to that question in Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, but you will have a great time hearing one of the theater's unique talents interpret some great (and not so great) songs.

Cumming performs most of the show in a sleeveless black shirt, bucking a major rule of the Café Carlyle that men must wear jackets at all times. "I believe in taking a jacket off when it's really hot," he states, like a populist politician. Of course, with the neon sign from his legendary Studio 54 dressing room illuminated over the stage, we come to understand that we're no longer in Café Carlyle, but Club Cumming.

According to Cumming, he fell in love with many of these sappy songs at Club Cumming. He traverses the worlds of pop, Broadway, and cabaret, selecting songs that resonate with him and work for his voice. He performs what is undoubtedly the best song to come out of this Broadway season, "You You You" from the Kander and Ebb swan song The Visit. He gives it all the gushing sentimentality it deserves, greatly aided by the rich accompaniment of cellist Eleanor Norton.

He charms us with the Georges Van Parys and Jean Renoir number "La Complainte de la Butte," performed avec un bon accent over the gentle rain of Lance Horne's piano accompaniment. Cumming delivers a heartrending rendition of Rufus Wainwright's "Dinner at Eight," in which every shattering lyric becomes clear as glass. He doesn't have the most powerful or resonant voice ever to take the stage at Café Carlyle, but there is a vulnerable and earnest quality to it that allows the words to shine through.

Before you assume this is the feel-bad show of the year, it should be noted that Cumming is a master of witty audience banter. He lightens the mood with jovial anecdotes and observations between songs. During one of many hilarious moments, he lets slip how much he's being paid for hosting the Tony Awards this coming Sunday. "Two thousand nine hundred and fifty f**king dollars," he grumbles, quickly adding, "but what an honor!"

Obviously, anyone who would sing the Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill Marxist anthem "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" within the rarified confines of the Café Carlyle isn't afraid to ruffle a few feathers. Cumming uses the version from the much-maligned 2006 Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera (in which he starred), projecting out to the audience accusatorily, "The guys who think we ought to starve and still be nice/ While you yourselves keep eating and grow fat." It's enough to make you put down your fork and push away the cheesecake.

One of the funniest passages of the show is a medley of Adele's "Someone Like You," Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory," and Katy Perry's "Firework," all of which he interprets with the requisite amount of torch-waving empowerment. "They're all the same songs," he observes.

Lest the musical theater snobs in the room hold their noses too high, Cumming is there to remind them that their chosen genre of divertissement is not high art, either: He immediately launches into a medley of Stephen Sondheim's "No One Is Alone," "Being Alive," and "Not While I'm Around." They blend seamlessly. He puckishly states, "I call this number 'No One Is Alive While I'm Around.'"

That Sondheim burn gives way to a sincere tribute with one of the vaunted Broadway composer's best songs. Clutching a martini, Cumming ends the show with a rousing rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch," a sly homage to the great lady of the Carlyle, Elaine Stritch, who originated the song in Company. Following the cool and deliberate bossa nova rhythm created by percussionist Chris Jego, Cumming slowly turns up the heat all the way through the song's feverish conclusion.

Cumming seems most comfortable in this place of irreverent cross-genre fusion, where high and low come together to dance. If it sounds good while you're enjoying a drink, he's game...and so are we.

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