Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs (review)

The real fun of a cabaret is in the surprises. Not the necessary moments, as when a Karen Akers rolls out “Marieke” or a Patti LuPone throws an Argentine bone to the fans worshipping at her balcony, but the inspired and unexpected ones — think of Elaine Stritch, heaven rest her, ruefully admitting “The Party’s Over” toward the end of her At Liberty act.

Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming, who’s always been more actor than singer despite the fame he’s earned in Broadway musicals, exploits this truth with no little savvy in Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, a puppy-friendly 80-minute evening built entirely on the unexpected notion that Alan Cumming has, in fact, a sappy side.

The feral pixie of TV’s The Good Wife, of the X-Men films and Broadway’s Threepenny Opera and Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret is much in evidence, it’s true, though he’s mostly on show in the mischievous patter between songs. (And man, does he ever convince you he’s thinking and saying these things in the moment; he’s told these same backstage stories dozens of times by now, but as he talks of tattooed lovers and lunches with Liza the twinkle of discovery is always in his eyes.)

But make no mistake: The man who’s picked those songs and stories, and who puts them across so openly and playfully, is a wiry, wiggly package wrapped around a big, smooshy, swoony heart. That’s nowhere more evident than in the oddity of “Complainte de la Butte,” which anchors a trio of unexpected songs that Cumming packages as a mini-tour of Western Europe’s more romantic capitals. With lyrics by Jean Renoir and a wheezy bandoneon of a melody by Georges Van Parys, it’s a winsome little waltz (familiar to some, perhaps, from a snippet that appears in the film Moulin Rouge) about a Parisian who’s fallen by moonlight for a streetwalker who might not stand up to scrutiny by the light of day.

Waltzes make up a decent percentage of Cumming’s Sappy Songs choices, come to think of it — but then what’s more romantic than the swing and spin of three-quarter time? A triple meter rocks gently under Michael Marra’s “Mother Glasgow,” a warmly sentimental pick that forms the second part of that Eurocities tour; folky and bittersweet and ringing with a thousand years of tradition, it’s a quiet hymn to Scotland’s grandest city — a meditation on community and shared history that, as Cumming explains, became a kind of mourning anthem as the city grieved a grim 2014 accident that claimed six lives.

Not My Father's SonClick to buy on Amazon, $9.57.

Not My Father’s Son Click to buy on Amazon, $9.57.

And later on, there’s the insistent, joyful 3/4 bloom of “You, You, You,” a celebration of rekindled passion from the Kander and Ebb musical The Visit, which Cumming noted was the duo’s last Broadway outing. (Its history included a developmental stop in the D.C. region in 2008, when theater legends Chita Rivera and George Hearn led the cast of a production at Signature Theatre.)

Other surprises include a read on Avril Lavigne’s hit “Complicated” that reveals the lyrics to be more, well, complicated than you might have realized, and more emotionally nuanced too; a spin through Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” that (alas) does nothing of the sort, but does at least sound divertingly odd in a Scotsman’s burr;  and a DJ-style mashup arguing the case that Adele’s “Someone Like You,”Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory,” and Katy Perry’s “Firework” are all basically the same song.

Also unexpected, though not in a good way, is an oddly toothless read on Threepenny Opera’s notorious “Second Threepenny-Finale,” a bitter broadside against the corrupt brand of moralism that punishes sexual transgression even as it starves the poor into prostitution and other crimes. It’s a fuck-the-Establishment song of the first order, and though you’d expect Cumming to be precisely the guy to sell it to the ceiling, the rage simply didn’t carry in the echoing expanse of Strathmore’s 1,900-seat music center. Maybe in a smaller space?

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs - Live at The Carlyle. Click to buy on Amazon, $11.99

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs – Live at The Carlyle. Click to buy on Amazon, $11.99

Ever the savvy showman, though, Cumming saves some of his best material for the evening’s capstone, wrapping his set list with an powerfully rueful read on “And So It Goes” — yes, the Top 40 breakup song from Billy Joel— as if he wants nothing more than to prove that the simplest of tunes, sung true, can lay a couple of thousand hearts low in less than three minutes.

And then in his playfully pro-forma encore (which proves anything but), he deploys both Noël Coward and Stephen Sondheim — two polar-opposite stylists whose juxtaposition Cumming somehow makes work perfectly. Such felicities, of course, are among the other great pleasures of a fine cabaret — and Sappy Songs is unmistakably that.

—————-

Alan Cumming performed Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, Feb 14, 2016 at The Music Center at Strathmore, North Bethesda, MD.

 

Trey Graham About Trey Graham

Trey Graham has covered the arts and pop culture
for NPR, the Washington City Paper, and other outlets.
He’s a winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for
distinguished drama criticism.
Reach him @treygraham.

Comments

*

Anti-Spam Quiz:

Reprint Policy Our articles may not be reprinted in full but only as excerpts and those portions may only be used if a credit and link is provided to our website.
DC Theatre Scene is supported in part by the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC.