Dame Edna’s Back and Michael Feinstein’s Got Her
By Ellis Nassour
There is nothing like a dame, goes that familiar refrain from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and there’s nothing like Dame Edna Everage. And there’s nothing like an evening of soothing Michael Feinstein. So, put them together and what do you have? All About Me, the new revue which opened last night at the Henry’s Miller’s.
What’s it about? "It’s really all about me!" claims Dame Edna emphatically. Says Feinstein, always a gentleman and much less emphatically, "It’s really all about me."
Anyone with any inside sources in this business – and isn’t everyone an inside source? – knows that staging a show with two pretty powerful egos isn’t easy. One is an artist with global theatrical background; the other, a composer/artist who’s weathered musical trends to remain a force. How does one placate what Dame Edna called "strange bedfellows" with equal billing and time onstage? That task went to Tony and Drama Desk nom’d director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw [who took over from Jerry Zaks on his departure to The Addams Family] and, seemingly to a lesser degree if the material in the 90-minute revue is fairly judged, Tony nom’d playwright Christopher Durang.
Playbill even joined in the faux feud, complementing both stars with their individual program, which eliminates any mention of the other [even sans bio].
All About Me opens smoothly with an extended overture, with snippets from Cabaret, Cats, ACL, Chicago, Gypsy, POTO, Sunday in the Park…, Sweeney Todd, Sweet Charity, WSS, and a sample of "New York, New York."
Feinstein appears on a Art Deco-style set with a 12-piece orchestra under Rob Bowman’s direction. In very fine voice, he sails through classics from the Great American Songbook fronting the band and at his very own concert grand. The tunes include Bricusse/Newley’s "What Kind of Fool Am I?", the Gershwins’ "Strike Up the Band," Lerner/Lane’s "What Did I Have That I Don’t Have," Rodgers/Hart’s epic torch "My Romance," and then he lets loose rockin’ Jerry Lee Lewis style with "Great Balls of Fire." Along the way he removes a gigantic vase of gladiolas.
But whose show is this anyway? All havoc breaks loose with the arrival of Dame Edna Everage, who has no idea what Feinstein’s doing center stage. Is he her warm-up act?
Decked out in glitzy gowns – one, supposedly hand-sewn by Australian nuns, with enough rhinestones that it must have shut down the mine – and glam footwear, the bejeweled, wisteria-haired Aussie expatriate takes the spotlight and the gladiolas are in bloom again. She does what she does best, what her fans have come to expect: dish out her brand of tough love.
All About Me came about after many years of friendship with Feinstein. "We met on the Tonight Show," recalls Feinstein, "After the program, we struck up a conversation about classic American songs. Dame Edna was especially interested in learning about Oscar Levant. Later, I invited her to join me at one of Roddy McDowell’s famous, star-studded dinners. That further cemented our friendship."
"I’ve always loved the music of the Great American Songbook," explains Dame Edna. "And Michael is one of its greatest interpreters. He’s more than a singer and pianist. He’s a music scholar and historian. One of his great achievements is showing the American public that this is one of its greatest gifts."
All About Me, the Dame adds, "is the kind of entertainment everyone needs." Feinstein says it’ll give Dame Edna the opportunity to further "explore her theatrical roots."
They wanted to create the best show in town, says Dame Edna. "It’s an all-new theatrical infrastructure. I’ll be glowing in never-before-seen frocks designed by my son Kenny. I’ll be singing and we’ll be doing duets." She describes the show as "a meditation on loss, a sort of story of reconciliation"; and slyly adds, "Since it’s all about me, it will be a bit of a love/hate relationship."
Dame Edna continues her tradition of giving "very spot-on psychic readings to astonished audience members." She feels the need to do it because "my audiences are needy. I’m here to help the darlings. I cut through the nonsense and tell it like it is. I pretend they’re as intelligent as I am. As a result, afterward they bask in newfound self-confidence. My only consideration is for my less fortunate peers."
It would be hard to imagine her not offering fashion advice to select audience members, who will in turn either laugh it off, hide under their seats,or run for cover. Be warned: It’s never a good idea to get out of your seat to run to the "potty"; and, God forbid, don’t arrive at 7:45 for a 7 P.M. performance! The Dame’s raison is, "I came all the way from Australia and I get here on time."
These little admonitions don’t always go over well with those who’ve paid Broadway prices to see the legendary star. "When audience members feel I’m a little too in-their-face with my gentle probing," says Dame Edna, "I have fits of depression."
She states, "I’ve been known to say such constructive things as ‘That’s a nice outfit. I used to make my own clothes, too!’ And the poor dear I addressed didn’t return for Act Two. Some people just are not ready for the truth! I want my possums to dress as if every day is a special occasion. I hate this American obsession with do-rags and torn dungarees. Why not relax in designer outfits as I do. Of course, I’m not only gorgeous, but also rich."
The Dame says audiences have come to experience her originality and freshness, "so I don’t over-rehearse. I want to be spontaneous." Some things, however, are predictable, "such as no sooner than I set foot onstage, audiences – even hard bitten old Broadway theatergoers — rise to their feet. Except for one man the other night. Sadly, he only had one leg. Still, he rose to his foot."
The Dame reluctantly admits to having a joyous heart. "My motto is ‘I’m sorry, but I care.’ Do you know doctors prescribe tickets to my show as therapy? At every performance, there are busloads of poor, depressed darlings in need. And I zero in on them. If I can’t coax a little twinkle out of them, I actually contemplate suicide."
Her Broadway outings Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance and Dame Edna: The Royal Tour* were long enough ago [2004 and 1999, respectively], both devised and written by Barry Humphries, that you might expect some surprises, but – the Dame’s claims notwithstanding – there’s not much of an extreme makeover.
[* Following The Royal Tour, which ran close to 400 performances, Dame Edna was buried beneath an avalanche of awards, including a 2000 DD for Outstanding Solo Performance. In 2004, Back with a Vengeance was DD-nom’d for Outstanding Solo Performance. The Dame captured her first DD nom [Unique Theatrical Experience] for 1978’s Housewife! Superstar!.]
"I have a simple message," she claims, "laughter. It’s a magic tonic and the best weapon against world tension ever invented. I’m fortunate to do a job that makes me happy and gives people pleasure, because, when you laugh, you use muscles that you don’t use in any other way."
Not to be outshone by Feinstein, the Dame also sings select tunes from The Great Australian Songbook, such ditties as "The Dingo Ate My Baby" and "The Koala Song."
She and her boys surprise by channeling the Beyoncé hit "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)." In a truly introspective moment, Dame Edna brings down the house with her unique rendition of Sondheim’s "Ladies Who Lunch."
According to her, when she leaves town, a deep depression settles over the theater community. "Psychiatrists call it EDS or the Edna Deprivation Syndrome. It happened after my last forays on the Great White Way; so, to show how caring and compassionate I am, I’m back."
Not if Feinstein can help it. He’s persistent, even returning to the stage torn and battered after being exiled by two chorus boy toughs. The production stage manager comes to the rescue, recommending they do the show together.
It all ends in perfect harmony, with what is the best part of the show: an extended, often hilarious medley by the duo. Songs include Berlin’s "A Couple of Swells," Porter’s "Friendship" and "I Get a Kick Out of You," Arlen/Mercer’s "One More for the Road," Kahn/Woods’ "Side by Side," Youmans/Caesar’s "Tea for Two," "Wind Beneath My Wings," "You Go To My Head" – even Amy Winehouse’s "Rehab," Pete Townshend’s "See Me, Feel Me," and "YMCA."
The finale is a rousing sing-along to "The Gladdy Song." "My possums may arrive agitated," states Dame Edna, "but they leave happy — more often than not, with a gladiola in hand."
The tradition of the gladiolas began by accident. "At one performance, I noticed a woman in the front row staring at my vase of gladdies. I became quite cross and began flinging them at her. I said, ‘You might as well have them. You prefer looking at them instead of me.’ She proceeded to share them with the entire row. When I did my last song, several people raised their gladies and began waving them in time with the music. It was poetic, funny and weirdly symbolic — like an ancient rite."
Though Dame Edna makes no guarantees, she says her gladiolas have healing properties. "The ushers have found neck braces, canes, walkers, and prosthetics. If an audience member has a body part that’s giving them trouble, all they need do is strap the gladdie to the affected area. Overnight, enzymes will leech into their organs and amazing things will happen. All for a one-price-includes-all ticket!"
Pre-show preparations begin early "because, when it comes to make-up, I entrust my transformations to no one but moi! I am so gorgeous that I actually have to tone myself down instead of make myself up. I don’t believe in surgery. Do you know what I call crow’s feet? The dried-up beds of old smiles. I won’t have them injected with poison! I pamper my skin with my own line of beauty products created from flowers and animal by-products."
An intimate confession slips into the conversation, the sort you would never expect to hear from Dame Edna Everage: she suffers pre-performance jitters. "Even a tough old trouper like me gets butterflies in the tummy. When audiences see me, I seem to be full of energy and confidence, but before I go out I’m shaking and sick with nerves; then I put on my glasses and I’m ready to expose myself."
Her success in America led to many media opportunities, including a short-lived TV show with such guests as Mel Gibson, Burt Reynolds, Robin Williams, Bea Arthur and Cher; an appearance on the 2001 Oscar telecast; and a recurring role on TV’s Ally McBeal.Certainly one of TV’s most memorable broadcasts was Dame Edna’s 2008 appearance on the Tonight Show, where another of Jay Leno’s guests was Nicole Kidman. She explained how, when Kidman was growing up in Australia, she was the actress’ mentor.
"When little Nicole was an acting student," said the Dame, wrapping Kidman in warm embraces, "I coached her. I taught her everything she knows. I would have taught her singing to, but somehow she managed on her own."
As Dame Edna went on and on, Kidman stared in disbelief. The Dame ignored Leno and began another show with Kidman. As she went on and on in intimate detail, Kidman tucked her hands into what Dame Edna called "a most unlady-like part of the anatomy." Dame Edna admonished her and Kidman turned beet red as Leno and the audience were ROTF.
Continuing with a relentless barrage, the Dame, without directly saying so, intimated Kidman wet her panties. The actress recoiled in jaw dropping horror. To her eternal credit, though she’ll probably make sure she’s never on another show with Dame Edna, Kidman was a trouper, sitting there when others might have stormed off.