Journalists, I know, are often accused of being all too eager to spot trends, but trust me. I really think I'm on to something. If it were merely two I might not say something, but "Dame Edna, Back With a Vengeance!" is the third - the THIRD - show I've seen in less than a week that features a single menopausal woman alone onstage, spilling, so to speak, her guts.
A week ago I had a double header. In the afternoon it was Eve Ensler, she of "The Vagina Monologues" exploring her tummy in "The Good Body." At night it was Whoopi Goidberg talking about hot flashes, farts, bikini waxes and oh so much else.
And now, Dame Edna, the superstar from Down Under, is bringing her own inimitable blend of glamour and good sense back to Broadway.
Who says there's a feminist backlash? The matriarchy has taken Broadway, as Dame Edna might put it, with a vengeance.
What is it that sets Dame Edna apart from her solo chick competitors?
First of all, unlike Ensler and Goldberg, who have absorbed all that feminist stuff about minimizing gender differences, Dame Edna is not afraid to be feminine.
No understated muumuus a la Ensler for her. No downtown funk a la Goldberg either.
Dame Edna has got it and she flaunts it in a second-act gown of bold yellows, blues, reds that, on a less perfect figure, might appear clownish. On Dame Edna's svelte form, it dazzles.
As you doubtless know, Dame Edna does much of her work with the audience, asking questions of hapless members and making them participants in the proceedings.
When a woman said she was from New Jersey, Edna snapped, "Your hair is quite low for New Jersey. What exit, darling?"
During the second act she brings numerous audience members onstage to recreate a scene from her early life.
Sharing a stage with amateurs can be perilous, and it is a testament to Dame Edna's thorough professionalism that she managed to dominate the stage even when a crafty woman named Anne, who earlier revealed that Churchill had mink floor mats in his bathroom, threatened to steal the show.
This time out, Dame Edna has a bouncy chorus behind her, as well as the splendid Wayne Barker at the piano.
Some of Dame Edna's earlier shows have made me laugh harder. (The first time I saw her, in London, nearly 30 years ago, she had another character, the Australian cultural consul, who was as outrageous as Edna. It would be fun to see him again.)
But Edna never wears out her welcome. She gets under your skin like the Australian unofficial national anthem, "Waltzing Matilda."
Long may she wave!
Yes, Dame Edna - the Lady of the Gladioli - is indeed "back with a vengeance," opening last night at the Music Box Theatre.
Her fervent fans can clearly never get enough of Australia's Dame Edna Everage (aka Barrie Humphries), but the slightly less committed should be warned not to sit in the first five or six rows, for this is very much an audience-participation show.
And any blushing violets might want to consider decamping at the intermission -for after a bright-ish first half, Dame Edna and her show nose-dive kamikaze-style into a field of corn.
Not pretty, possums!
Humphries is a very fine actor and an even better performer. I recall him starting off in the London scene some 40 years ago at Peter Cook's Establishment Club -he was brilliant then and is now only more so.
His persona Dame Edna is a masterly fabrication, created largely from the dame tradition of Anglo-Australian pantomime and a long line of British drag queens from Douglas Byng to Danny LaRue.
But Humphries adds something very rude and very special - his own glittering personality, as hard and bright as his polished nails, and as unforgiving as a gravestone.
He takes no prisoners - oddly enough, usually to the delight of his plucky victims.
They all seem to be good sports - rather like the foxes in a fox hunt.
This time around, Dame Edna descends from the sky - deus ex machina, one might say - embedded in a purple- rinse wig and a puce crinoline decorated with cake wrapping, which she whisks off to reveal a nifty, silver lame shift.
With her fiercely grimacing mouth and gesticulating eyes in full cry, she then harasses the audience with her customary impertinent glee.
Humphries is a master of the ad-lib - you wouldn't want to get into an argument with him. His tongue could impale almost anyone with malicious ease.
There are few set jokes to the act - which are edgy, but very funny, such as "Jesus got his disciples a book deal -those gospels were the Harry Potter books of their day."
Edna also drops a few local names - like ABC weather man Sam Champion -and throws in a few topical references (on the night I attended, she poked fun at the attendance earlier that day of our supposedly unbookish president at the opening of the Clinton Library).
But the crux of the performance is her interplay with a few arbitrarily selected victims in the audience.
These she gently mocks with a surgical savagery, asking inane personal questions (What is the color of your bathroom? What kind of bathroom tissue do you use?) and holding the answers up to audience ridicule.
Of course, I laughed along with the rest. It's very entertaining, in its Roman Colosseum fashion –although I did admire the woman who refused to go up onstage for our delectation.
But after the intermission, Dame Edna loses her way.
She lures a young couple up onstage - and I'm pretty sure they were not plants - and offers weakly humorous marriage counseling.
Then she brings up a number of other people in that old circus-clown trick (David Shiner does it best) of having them rehearse a play, which features, not for the first time in the show, her interest in the prostate gland and urological procedures.
It's not at all witty, and I'd long since had my fill of sacrificial lambs smiling their way to the slaughter.
The ritual gladioli throwing - which terminates all of Dame Edna's rants - did not come a moment too soon.
Attention, please, all you prematurely famous young women out there, you who have made such a hash of your early celebrity. You know who you are, Britney, Lindsay, Paris. You, too, little Olsens. Hasten to the temple known as the Music Box Theater and sit at the feet of a star who for decades has stomped unscathed, unbowed and unembarrassed though the realms of renown. Learn from her, children, for no one, ever, has been as happy to be famous or as certain that she deserves to be adored.
She, of course, is the august Dame Edna Everage, who opened last night in her tirelessly funny new show, "Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance!" Rest assured that though she wears elaborately engineered gowns with detachable pieces, Dame Edna is not given to mortifying wardrobe malfunctions that expose intimate body parts. If she were, though, you know that she would manage to make it all seem perfectly comme il faut. Dame Edna, you see, knows better than anyone that fame means never having to say you're sorry.
It was nearly half a century ago that Edna Everage (damehood still awaited her) was invented by a young Australian actor named Barry Humphries, whose body the mauve-haired entertainer continues to take over for public appearances. Rather like the plant in "The Little Shop of Horrors," the initially blowsy Edna grew larger, glitzier and hungrier as she fed on the adulation of British (and later American) theater and television fans over the years.
That magnification process has by no means stopped. As Dame Edna explains early in this latest version of her singing, dancing shrine to herself, when she last appeared on Broadway five years ago she was merely a megastar. Now, she says, she is "a glittering gigastar." And as she hinted to a 10-year old audience member she summoned to the stage the night I saw the show, full canonization (via her good friend the Pope) is surely only a breath away.
All great comedians - and Dame Edna definitely belongs to that pantheon - tap directly into something raw and angry within their culture: feelings of class oppression (Charlie Chaplin), sexual anxiety (Lenny Bruce), racial conflict (Richard Pryor). The genius of Dame Edna lies in the use she makes of our masochistic obsession with the rich and famous.
For Dame Edna is not shy about stating what is only implicit in the pages of Us and People: stars exist to make the rest of the world gape with awe, seethe with jealousy and feel hopelessly inadequate. So "Back With a Vengeance!," designed by Brian Thomson, allows ticket buyers envy-stirring glimpses of a simulacrum of its star's New York penthouse (a gift from Donald Trump, she says) as well as all those spangled gowns and bejeweled butterfly-frame eyewear. Celebrity, as Dame Edna sees it, isn't just next to godliness; it has its own spot on the top of Olympus.
Why, she even draws a religious analogy in explaining to those theatergoers she singles out for audience participation that they should feel honored instead of persecuted. The disciples of the New Testament, after all, didn't say things like "I hope Jesus doesn't pick on me today." Not, Dame Edna adds quickly, that she is comparing herself to Jesus. Then her eyes glaze in self-worshipful contemplation, as her mouth wriggles like a drunken snake. "There are spooky similarities," she says.
This messianic ego is what allows Edna to practice "cutting-edge caring," as she puts it, on her fans. Which means that those who don't want to risk being dragged into the spotlight had better buy seats in the balcony, home to what Edna fondly calls "the paupers." Otherwise, you might wind up onstage like the young couple to whom Edna offered sexual counsel. (At crucial coital moments, she advised, they should always ask each other, "What would Edna want us to do now?")
There is another cheerfully humiliating sequence - a workshop for the Dame's forthcoming bio-extravaganza "The Girl From Oz" - for which five victims are recruited to portray members of Edna's Melbourne household in the 1950's, on the day she decided "to put my family last" and pursue her fabulous destiny. The show also embraces the now customary interrogation of audience members on the dubious taste of their houses and wardrobes, a generous serving of overripe double- entendres and of course a transporting musical finale in which Dame Edna tosses gladioli (her signature flower) into the audience. "Grab life by the stalk!" she exhorts.
"Back With a Vengeance!," for the record, is not a one-person show. Dame Edna is accompanied by the agile pianist Wayne Barker and supported by a four-member chorus known as the Gorgeous Ednaettes and the Equally Gorgeous TestEdnarones. These lissome creatures spin about to the disco beat of the show's title song, as Dame Edna snaps her fingers and staggers like a linebacker caught in a windstorm.
And there is that marvelous introductory number that begins with Edna cooing to her audience, "This show is all about you." She keeps up the pretense until the song's very last line, when she screeches triumphantly that the show is really "all about me." Well, of course it is. And what bliss to be with a Broadway diva who doesn't pretend otherwise.
You always hurt the ones you love, possums. And in her latest tour de force, Dame Edna Everage has love to spare.
"You've had a little work done, haven't you?" Australia's favorite drag queen asked a female audience member at last Friday's preview of Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance! (* * * 1/2 out of four). Another woman seated near the front, who revealed her name's exotic spelling, was told, "Your parents probably heard it on the radio and wrote it down as best they could. Setting her sights on an elderly man, Edna then cooed, "He's not following this. He's heavily sedated. But he's enjoying the color and the movement."
Luckily, the four years since she last appeared on Broadway have not mellowed our dame, the alter ego of writer/performer Barry Humphries. In her new show, which opened Sunday at the Music Box Theatre, the ever-smiling Edna lavishes theatergoers - whom she refers to as her "surrogate family," her darlings and, of course, possums - with glimpses into her charmed life and insights into their own sorry existences.
Humphries is a master of the sort of wry but wacky humor generally served best by artists from abroad. But as befits a jet-setting housewife, social anthropologist, swami and celebrity spin doctor - to list a few of the titles mentioned in her bio - Edna has an abiding interest in all cultures, harboring a particular affection for our quaint customs.
"I'm not American, but, funnily enough, I wish I was - rather in the same way that Madonna wishes she was English," she observes. Regarding our recent political election, Edna insists she is non-partisan. But she can't help but take a few jabs at our president, who calls her for advice, she claims - often in the wee hours of the morning, since he's not aware of global time differences.
Edna's own kin are treated just as warmly. Of her favorite son, she enthuses, "He and I could sit around and talk for hours - if I were interested in anything he had to say."
At Friday's performance, a few brave attendees were pulled onstage to play Edna's loved ones in an autobiographical vignette that did not shy away from her late husband's prostate problems. In another audience-participation segment, Edna sought to counsel a married couple, in her fashion, Inquiring about their courtship period, she asked the husband, "Were there others?" Turning to the wife, she continued, "And were you experimenting a little yourself?"
Don't blame the dame for her intrusiveness; the girl can't help it. "I'm a people-a-holic," she confessed. Let's hope Edna does not overcome her addiction any time soon.
"It's been a tempestuous few weeks, but after four years of anxiety, the nation has spoken. The majority have got their will," proclaims Edna. "I am back on Broadway!"
Much like her Tony-winning 1999 hit "Dame Edna: The Royal Tour," the new show is part papal audience, part group therapy and part public humiliation, with a handful of raucously voiced, clumsily danced musical numbers thrown in. Why tamper with a winning formula?
While Edna traditionally occupies only the second act of Humphries' live shows in Australia and Britain, the relative inaccessibility for American auds of the actor's other staple characters leaves it to the dame to fly solo in Stateside engagements.
From the moment Edna descends from above on a pair of giant butterfly-wing spectacles, the first act of "Back With a Vengeance" has the efficacy of a comic machine gun, an exhilaratingly exhausting barrage ail but impossible to sustain. Perhaps inevitably, a dilution in energy follows intermission (or "pause for reflection," as it's termed in the Playbill) when Edna shares the stage more frequently with her four backup dancers (the Gorgeous Ednaettes and the Equally Gorgeous TestEdnarones) as well as victims plucked from the audience.
What makes the show so outrightly enjoyable despite this slight imbalance is the dizzying alacrity of Humphries' ad libs and his uncanny ("spooky," Edna might say) ability to retain and refer back to the names and personal data mined from a series of randomly selected targets in the audience.
This sharp-wittedness, the keen social satire and timely cultural references keep the persona fresh and spontaneous. In what must surely be one of the most remarkable feats of endurance for any fictional comic alter ego, next year will mark 50 years since Humphries first slipped into the frock and slingbacks of the housewife from suburban Moonee Ponds, Melbourne.
Despite the evolution from gauche hausfrau to wisteria-wigged celebrity icon and self-appointed swami to the world, Edna, for all her ostentation, has retained a core of profound ordinariness ("I'm still Edna from the block), wherein lies her charm. She's like the most self-absorbed, unapologetically crass, monstrously invasive and haughtily judgmental relative at any family gathering, all cloaked in a faux-benevolent aura of "cutting-edge caring" and "radical unselfishness."
The Everage family regulars all are mentioned here, including Edna's late invalid husband Norm, a research patient who became "the face of the prostate"; her artistic son Kenny ("a practicing homeopath"); and disappointing daughter Valmai. But it's the hapless handful in the front rows that catch Dame Edna's attention who provide the lion's share of material.
A word of warning to women: choose your footwear for the evening with great care. In one of the show's most hilarious interactions, Edna thrusts a giant butterfly net out into the audience, demanding that shoes be deposited for psychic evaluation. It's when the star's curiosity is piqued by an attendee's dress sense ("I don't know how I'd describe what you're wearing. Affordable, I think."), personal history and home decor that Humphries really fires on all cylinders. Never before have harmless-sounding requests like "Tell me about your home, darling" or "Talk me through your day, possum" struck such terror into people's hearts.
Slyly acknowledging the presence of critics on press night and pointing to the lessons to be learned in dramatic structure from her work, Edna summons her prey onstage in act two to workshop a scene from her forthcoming bioplay "The Girl From Oz." While the slapdash results momentarily loosen the spell of Humphries tight command, the spirited participation of Edna's recruits and the relief of those who escaped her "nurturing" interest makes for upliftingly silly fun.
And while Humphries' British and Australian shows perhaps benefit from deeper first-hand knowledge of local cultural foibles and class indicators, Edna is sufficiently keyed into American mores to claim rightful domain on any U.S. stage, tossing in references to Bill O'Reilly, the Clinton Library (Including a question from George W. Bush: "How many books do I need for a library? Is Laura's 'Da Vinci Code' enough?") and her current competition on Broadway.
Backed by regular accompanist Wayne Barker tinkling away at the piano and bathed in Jane Cox's warm lighting, Edna is outfitted in amusingly gaudy gowns by Will Goodwin and Stephen Adnitt. Brian Thomson's set opts for basic plush, with twin chandeliers, a scalloped curtain and a pedestal vase bulging with the dame's signature blooms, gladioli, athletically hurled into the audience to be waved in the traditional closing song.