Review: ‘Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs’ at Strathmore

The sign in the Strathmore ticket booth said a lot about Alan Cumming’s appeal.

“SHOW SOLD OUT!” it blared.

An hour before the show, the place was filling up with people eager for the doors to open. Even the upper balcony seats near the back of the house filled up with people looking for a novel way to spend Valentine’s Day.

Alan Cumming. Photo courtesy of Strathmore.
Alan Cumming. Photo courtesy of Strathmore.

Despite the vastness of the Strathmore’s concert hall, and the sparseness of the set, Cumming and his crew made their outstanding performance feel like a bit like the intimate cabaret scene, the “Cabaret Cumming” he created a year ago at the Café Carlyle on the Upper East Side, ensconced between Central Park and the boutiques of Madison Avenue.

It was a place of his own creation.

Cabaret Cumming sprang from the nightly backstage parties he hosted during his recent Broadway Cabaret run. As the deejay, he’d tell some stories and jokes, mix drinks and sing a little. Eventually, the backstage evening of drinking and dancing was such an exclusive, must-see scene, the alcohol was sponsored by a leading distiller.

After Cabaret’s one year run ended, Cumming produced small, cabaret soirees at the Carlyle Hotel. And, the popular drama, The Good Wife, is now ending, too, after its sixth season, allowing Cumming to, once again, roam the world.

The Strathmore set was indeed spare. But elegant. The familiar black backdrop cloth was draped around the back three-quarters of the stage. Onstage, lit by blue light, was an enormous grand piano, a drum set, and stands for cellist Eleanor Norton, drummer-guitarist Michael Croiter, and Cumming. Music Director/Composer Lance Horne was the pianist. He looks a tad like Ashton Kutcher.

Together, the three musicians produced a sound akin to a full-sized orchestra.

Cumming has been described by critics has having a pansexual appeal.

It’s actually more of a Peter Pan appeal.

The audience wanted to fly away with this warm, witty 51-year old who’s never quite grown up. Unless the role calls for it.

The actor and director has won nearly every entertainment award except an Oscar. His biographical book, Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir, about his relationship with his abusive father, was on the New York Times bestseller list at Christmastime. A just-released album (for which Cumming and two dancers appear totally nude on the cover – standing in front of the Carlyle Hotel at 2 a.m.) is starting to climb the charts. On the big screen, flat screen, and on Broadway, he’s performed in cartoons, crime shows, Stanley Kubrick movies, and cabarets.

Cumming is no stranger to controversy as an advocate for LGBT civil rights and the continuing fight against HIV/AIDS. In the U.K. he’s received numerous honors for his volunteer advocacy actions.

He speaks with a multitude of accents – his “American” is perfect – so it takes a few minutes to acclimate to his native Scottish brogue.

The cabaret started right on time.

Cumming strode out one pace behind his talented musicians. His hair moussed upright, with a high and tight cut, Cumming wore a skinny gray suit with an untucked black shirt and narrow black leather tie, and black Converse sneakers. The jacket came off pretty quickly revealing the shirt had no sleeves. We were treated to Cumming’s youthful, almost sculptural, arms the rest of the evening.

The audience screamed when he came onstage, and screamed louder when the jacket came off. Sorry, no, he didn’t repeat his album cover wardrobe.

Those arms never stopped moving. Most singers keep their arms loose at their sides, gesturing occasionally. Not Cumming. Those arms were in dramatic motion the entire evening, forming halos and constellations around his head and torso.

He ripped right into his first song, “Why?” followed by “Somewhere Only We Know.”

Between most of the songs, all delivered vibrantly, spiced with drama and emotion, he told stories and self-depreciating tales. From his lack of memory after returning to n Cabaret after a 16-year absence (“I had to look up the ending. It didn’t end well,” he deadpanned.), to a bawdy description of how the word “Raven” came to be tattooed on his groin. The audience didn’t get the full Monty, but his physical description made it very clear – even to those seated high at the back of the stage. (And, the tattoo is now gone.)

From the songs by “serious artists” he segued into Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” from the Hannah Montana movie, itself a beautiful song

He spoke movingly about people in his life, like his beloved maternal grandfather, who fought in a war, and returned with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He noted many returned from Vietnam with PTSD that went untreated. It was hard to fight back the tears as he movingly performed Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon.

We met as soul mates

On Parris Island

We left as inmates

From an asylum …

He moved on – to a jokey 1950s-style jingle he and Lance Horne created about Ecstasy, a new condom by Trojan Condoms. “It’s shaped like a baseball bat!”

Cumming took the audience to Europe with “Mother Glaskow,” Georges Van Parys and Jean Renoir’s “La Complainte de la Butte,” and Kurt Weill’s “How Do Humans Live.”

His voice, clear and strong, hit the high notes yet was capable of reaching down to a basso growl. Cumming’s vocals and body movements would trigger the audience’s laughter one moment and get them reaching for the Kleenex in the next stanza.

“You You You,” from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s final production, The Visit, stilled the house.

At one point, Cumming couldn’t open one of several bottles of water he consumed throughout the show. He asked a patron in the front row to open it for him.

“There’s my audience participation,” he joked, making a winking eye contact with seemingly the entire room.

One song turned out to be a seamless mash-up of Adele’s “Someone Like You,” and Lady Gaga’s “The Edge,” and Katy Perry’s “Firework.” It was hard to tell he’d blended three songs.

“They’re all the fucking same!” he exclaimed. “But, it’s not a judgement! Everyone recycles!”

He then did a mash-up of Stephen Sondheim songs, titled “No One Is Alive Not While I’m Around.”

Near the end, he told a moving story about Liza Minnelli’s first public appearance with mother Judy Garland and her godmother, Eloise author Kay Thompson, watching incognito in the audience.

The punchline was hysterical – but I’m not going to spoil it for you.

If you can’t get to any of his upcoming tour dates, do the next best thing: buy the album!

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

(The audience got a bonus 20 minutes! It had been announced the show would be 80 minutes and a magnum of Moet et Chandon.)

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs played on Sunday, February 14, 2016 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For tickets for future events at Strathmore, go to their calendar of events.

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Alan Cumming’s tour continues on to Napes, FL (February 28), Detroit, MI (March 19), Minneapolis, MN (March 26), Princeton, NJ (May 13), Port Washington, NY (May 14), Dallas, TX (June 24), Austin, TX (June 25), and San Antonio, TX (June 26). Details are at AlanCumming.com.

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!