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David Finkle

David Finkle

Posted: May 3, 2010 10:22 AM

First-Nighter: Alan Cumming Acts Up, Acts Waaaaaay Up

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It was difficult to sit through Alan Cumming's instantly captivating, chutzpah-stuffed Feinstein's at Loews Regency opening on April 27 without repeatedly wondering whether management at the Upper Eastside Manhattan room would ask him to tone down some of his racier remarks or think about dropping the political comments -- such as his suggesting that ringsiders check out fightbackpac.com, the website devoted to unseating New York State senators who voted against same-sex marriage. Some of Cumming's utterances -- at one time associated only with sailors but now apparently acceptable in junior-high-school lexicons -- might still be thought by cautious in-house impresarios to raise the eyebrows of habitués at this swankery.

No predicting what the room's deciders might do -- considering Michael Feinstein, who lends his name to the room and appears there often, married his male partner in California -- but an educated guess would be that nothing will be said. Why bother? Committed, highly intelligent, off-the-cuff funny, recently naturalized American citizen Cumming lets it be known through a puckish yet no-uncertain-terms manner that he's not the type to modulate his behavior for anyone.

To begin with, that aura is part of the reason he's such a mesmerizing entertainer. It's more likely Cumming will not only be allowed but enthusiastically encouraged to fulfill his two contracted room stints (April 27-May1, June 22-26). Relatively new to cabaret performance, he's already honed the craft to a Mack-the-Knife edge. His off-handed banter, his dramatic approach to singing, his lithe physicality, his holding nothing back about himself (certainly not his homosexuality) shouldn't baffle anyone.

A fine theater, film and television actor (he's now a regular on The Good Wife and hosts the PBS Masterpiece Mystery! series) who confides he's used to relating to audiences through roles, he's also smilingly comfortable speaking his mind in public. (At least he seems comfortable, although on his alancumming.com website, he did confess misgivings about the stint minutes before inaugurating it.)

If the Feinstein's people venture reservations, any guarded requests might be more along the lines of examining the material Cumming has chosen -- and its quantity. Or lack of quantity, because Cumming spends much of his allotted time telling tales in his distinct Scot's burr -- one about working with Ann Miller that reminds auditors show-biz folk can be scatological. He delights at reeling them off in more or less stream-of-consciousness delivery.

As a result, he only gets around to 10 songs when a dozen or more is usually the standard formula (in two senses of the term) in this and similar boites. Okay, he gets around to 11, since one is a medley of the Burt Bacharach-Elvis Costello "I Still Have the Other Girl on My Mind" and Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind."

After kicking off with the Fred Ebb-John Kander "Mein Herr" (he always mentions songwriters' names), he jokes that he'd been nervous enough to need a starter for which he knew the words. He knows those words -- as most audience members were likely to realize -- thanks to his compere assignment in the last Cabaret revival. From then on, though, he emphasizes songs to which many patrons may not have known the words. Depending on whatever generation a winer-and-diner hailed from, the Sondheim "Losing My Mind" or Jeff Harris's "Beautiful" (which Christina Aguilera popularized) was the most familiar.

Whatever he sang received a core-of-his-being approach. "Wig in a Box" and "Wicked Little Town" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch and by Stephen Trask were compulsively histrionic, whereas he was teen-crush-adorable singing the Marcy Heisler-Zina Goldrich "Taylor, the Latte Boy" about falling in love with a generous barista. Doing William Finn's heart-rending "What More Can I Say?," also about same-sex attraction and devotion was the one -- with particularly lovely support by cellist Yair Evnine -- that prompted the fightbackpac.com commercial.

Since there's no show-business sector in which Cumming is not interested, he's added tunesmithing to his resumé -- the least of his output sending-up "Liza With a 'Z,'" about his surname not ending in an "s." (In his estimation, too many people don't realize this.) Longer and hilariously graphic is "I Want to See You," a plea for women to avoid cosmetic surgery. It's perhaps his boldest inclusion in front of attendees who could very well have come directly from a Botox session.

The other song that might cause bristling in a possibly Republican stronghold is one his hugely accomplished musical director Lance Horne penned and calls "American." It's a hard-bitten declamation of one American's beliefs and admissions -- all of which the crusading Cumming clearly recognizes and the contradictions of which speak to his complicated reasons for choosing citizenship in this country. With white-hot-bitter fervor, he intones:

I support the research of DNA
If it keeps my future child from being gay.
I hate to sound inclusive, but I love to say
I'm American.