Review: ‘Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs’ at The Kennedy Center

Wearing his heart on his sleeve throughout, entertainer extraordinaire Alan Cumming (Tony-award winner for Cabaret, regular on the hit television series The Good Wife, concert and recording star, writer, etc.) enthralled the audience throughout his concert very wittily entitled Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs. Mr. Cumming commanded the stage like a tiger on the prowl, never letting up from an incessant, propulsive energy that swept through numerous songs that he related to emotionally.

Alan Cumming performing his cabaret show. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

The mood was decidedly in the powerhouse mode as Mr. Cumming moved and sang with a disarming authority – yet with a concurrent vulnerability – that I have ever seen from any male performer.

Mr. Cumming’s concert had a very cutting-edge style with a very unique and esoteric mix of songs and very personal, intimate patter. Cumming’s concert was well-suited to his very theatrical and “over-the top” persona. There was a welcome gay sensibility to the proceedings (The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC were a splendid addition to supply robust musical back-up to some final songs).

Mr. Cumming was so “in the moment” in every moment of his time on the stage, I was often tempted to stop making notes and just bask in the sheer immediacy and professionalism of the moment.

I have never seen anybody except for Bette Midler or Liza Minnelli, who has ever delivered a concert of such pure unabashed joy, raucousness, abandon, and involvement. Mr. Cumming claims to be “an actor who sings” and, indeed, he acts out each song like a three-act play (akin to the style of Streisand, Minnelli and Edith Piaf) but he also produces a vocal tone that is beautifully sustained and controlled, replete with impeccable phrasing and capable of reaching powerful crescendos that sent chills down the spine.

Another triumph was the vast amount of autobiographical patter and storytelling prowess that enhanced the concert like a probing laser beam. Cumming careened from more amusing anecdotes to more serious subject matter such as the harsh demeanor of his father, his search for his Grandfather and the current political scene.

Mr. Cumming was accompanied by Musical Director and composer Lance Horne on piano, Eleanor Norton on cello, and Chris Jago on drums and guitar. These three musicians accompanied Mr. Cumming with consummate artistry and exemplary musical integrity (their biographies listed extensive professional accomplishments). Mr. Cumming introduced them with generosity and applauded their skill throughout the concert.

Without the usual “warming up” song, Cumming opened the concert with the up-tempo song “Why.” Cumming caressed each note to create a mesmerizing and theatrical mood. Cumming’s light Scottish brogue added character and resonance to his delivery.

Cumming sang the affirmative “The Climb” with an affectionate tone and a striking fervor. Though there are mountains to climb, we should not worry about the problems but, instead, we should make the climb.

“Goodnight Saigon” was a very inspired rendering of solidarity with veterans and all the “war weary” who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.  Trenchant, hard-hitting lyrics left a lump in the throat as Cumming sang “We met as inmates in an asylum” and “We left in plastic in numbered corpses.” With great theatrical imagination, Cumming built to a chilling crescendo as he sang “We all go down Together.”

“Ecstasy” was a hilarious novelty song about condoms that lightened the mood considerably. Prior to singing it, Cumming recounted how he was approached by the condom company to advertise their products. Given carte blanche to come up with an ad, he and Lance Horne conceived the ad and song.

“Mother Glasgow” was a musical salute to Glasgow, Scotland where Cumming attended Drama School for three years. In a most creative manner, Cumming introduced the song by explaining many of the Scottish terms in the song. Cumming plumbed deep emotional depths throughout.

Cumming mentioned marching in the March for Climate Change Awareness and he made some interesting political comments to help the audience be more aware of the political climate. Mr. Cumming then sang a beautiful song in French entitled “Complainte de la butte”.

Alan Cumming. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Mr. Cumming then launched into a very “high-octane” mode as he sang very stirringly and powerfully as his character Mack the Knife from the musical The Threepenny Opera. The often-corrosive experience of being human was explored to the hilt by Mr. Cumming.

The song “Dinner at Eight” was introduced as a song dedicated to the memory of Cumming’s relationship to his Father.  (Mr.  Cumming has written a book about his relationship with his Father). Cumming remarked as to how meaningful E. M. Forster’s book Howards End was to him as it contained the meaningful exhortation to “Only Connect!”.

The song “Complicated” was a musical exploration of the growing pains of a challenging relationship and Cumming sang it with resonance and passion.

For a complete change of pace, Mr. Cumming proceeded to launch into an edgy yet moving medley of three standards by three current artists, namely Adele’s “Someone Like You”, Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” and Katie Perry’s “Fireworks.”

Probably one of the most intriguing pieces of this innovative concert was Mr. Cumming’s marvelously engaging and fast-paced medley of Sondheim songs, which was hilarious in effect and approved by Mr. Sondheim himself.  Sections of “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd, “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods, and “Being Alive” from Company were interwoven to masterful effect. Cumming hilariously titled his new composition “No One Is Alive While I’m Around.”

The powerful song “Last Day on Earth” was a moving and haunting song that built towards a powerful ending and was enhanced by the evocative tones of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC in the background.

To the shouts of “Bravo” and sustained applause, Mr. Cumming sang a fascinating medley of the more subdued and plaintive classic “If Love Were All” which lead into a very dramatic and theatrically robust cover of the Sondheim classic “The Ladies Who Lunch.” With a martini glass in hand and his arms raised towards his appreciative audience, Alan Cumming provided an audacious and provocative ending to this very hip, professional and cutting-edge concert.

The Kennedy Center and operatic star Renée Fleming (this concert is part of the Renée Fleming VOICES concert series) should be commended for showcasing Alan Cumming’s virtuosic talents to the Washington, DC metro region community.

Running Time: One Hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs played for one-night only on Saturday, April 29, 2017 at 8 PM, as part of the Renée Fleming VOICES series at The Kennedy Center’s  Concert Hall – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to future events, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.

1 COMMENT

  1. Inspired by this review, I’ve been listening to the album Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs on Spotify. (It’s also on Amazon Prime.) What wonderful discovery—thanks, David.

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