Published on August 30, 2016
In a swirl of sequins, velvets, bugle beads and the occasional palate-cleansing tuxedo, a heady lineup of Broadway’s distaff stars — rising, risen and en-route-to-legendary — paraded their talents at Carnegie Hall Monday night in a benefit for AmFAR and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS that was also taped for broadcast on “Great Performances.”
In a swirl of sequins, velvets, bugle beads and the occasional palate-cleansing tuxedo, a heady lineup of Broadway’s distaff stars — rising, risen and en-route-to-legendary — paraded their talents at Carnegie Hall Monday night in a benefit for AmFAR and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS that was also taped for broadcast on “Great Performances.
The nearly three-hour concert, presented by co-producer Continental Airlines, was an often intoxicating display of vocal artistry that might only be faulted for its overabundance: How much rich dessert can one be expected to consume in an evening? Hearing Jennifer Holliday tear into her signature song from “Dreamgirls” followed by the potent comic astringency of Elaine Stritch saluting “The Ladies Who Lunch” was like capping a hot fudge sundae with a heaping helping of tiramisu.
Not that I’m complaining.
Special guest females Robert Morse and Tony Roberts opened the show in period drag with “Beauty That Drives a Man Mad,” a snazzy song from the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill musical “Sugar,” based on “Some Like It Hot,” in which Morse and Roberts starred as the stage counterparts of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. But from a gracious introduction by Julie Andrews straight through to a land-of-a-thousand females finale, it was wall-to-wall divas, among whom we can even count tux-clad , pompadoured firecracker Lea DeLaria, giving a jazzy taste of the upcoming “On the Town.”
The evening was commendable for its celebration of such up-and-comers — the absence of established names Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley, to name a few, gave these aspiring performers more time in the spotlight. Audra McDonald, with three spots and three gowns (one for each Tony?), growled out a delightfully sharp-edged rendition of “Down With Love,” among the few rarities on offer (from Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s “Hooray for What!”).
Her “Ragtime” co-star Marin Mazzie sang a sultry “Bewitched,” while both were later joined by Judy Kuhn for a best-of-Lloyd-Webber-love-ballad medley (“Love Changes Everything,” “Unexpected Song” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” which blended together with rather illuminating ease).
Linda Eder’s Streisand-esque power-pop style blazed distinctively from her songs, “Jekyll & Hyde’s” “Someone Like You” and the title tune from “Man of La Mancha,” and was a marked hit with an audience that was appropriately unstinting in its enthusiasm for all the performers.
Breaking up the string of solo belting turns was “Show Boat’s” “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” sung with tongue-in-cheek wit by “High Society’s” young Anna Kendrick, backed by the dissolute dames from the Roundabout’s “Cabaret.” The number teetered on the edge of tastelessness, as Kendrick, in perky pigtails and pink party dress, mimicked the lewd chair-straddling antics of the Kit Kat Klub chorines, but this young performer’s startlingly precocious grasp of irony served to bring down any raised eyebrows.
Also leavening the ballad-freighted evening were two choice comic segments from Faith Prince: her memorable “Adelaide’s Lament” and “I’m Going Back,” from “Bells Are Ringing,” both models of vocal wit.
Among the more seasoned performers, Dorothy Loudon’s tremulously touching song from “Ballroom,” Dee Hoty’s angular elegance cutting through Sondheim’s “Could I Leave You?” and Debra Monk’s exuberantly vulgar tramp number from “Steel Pier” stood out. Andrea McArdle, who might be called a young veteran, looked smashing in red velvet, and brought an aching sense of loss to the easy optimism of her “Annie” medley of “Look for the Silver Lining” and “Tomorrow.”
Closing out the evening were Holliday, whose signature vocal pyrotechnics were probably the only thing capable of upstaging her hairdo (picture Mount Vesuvius, modeled in gold ribbons, frozen in mid-eruption), and the inestimable Stritch, herself a simmering volcano of sarcasm.
But in an evening of vocal excellence, it’s sad to have to report that Liza Minnelli’s contribution was almost heartbreaking. Valiant and generous though it was for her to participate, she looked unwell, and struggled to keep her strained voice in control through a most unhappily chosen “Sing Happy.” She then got through “Some People” on sheer willpower — and on the palpably felt good will of the audience.
It’s to be hoped that a genetic predisposition toward comebacks will kick in, and this once-impeccable performer can again attain the high standard of vocalism so marvelously displayed throughout the evening, a standard she herself has helped set.