It's great to have Dame Edna Everage back in town, but she's part of a package that includes Michael Feinstein -- and that's no deal.
The premise for "All About Me" is that the Australian housewife superstar hijacks the cabaret entrepreneur's Broadway concert. Urged by their stage manager (Jodi Capeless), the two grudgingly agree to share the show, despite the fact that no theater in this town is big enough for Feinstein's ego and Dame Edna's hair.
It's clear Edna's the real draw here. When she barges in after 15 minutes of Feinstein's undistinguished delivery of chestnuts like "My Romance" and "Strike Up the Band," you can hear the audience sigh with relief.
Michael Feinstein (left) is forgettable while Dame Edna carries the show.
The creation of Barry Humphries (who co-wrote the show with Christopher Durang), Edna is her usual giddy, flighty self. By now, Humphries so thoroughly inhabits her that when Edna said she was lactating, my first thought was, "She can't be -- she's too old!"
Faced with this force of nature, Feinstein flounders. Blissfully free from the shackles of charisma, he stares and grins blankly while Edna hams it up as only she can.
This might have worked to the show's benefit since Edna's best when bouncing off a straight man -- so to speak, since there are a couple of underhanded jokes about her co-star's sexuality. But she still needs something to work with, and Feinstein is as reactive as a wet tuxedo. So Edna's left to find her foils in the audience. The interaction with random possums, as she calls her victims, is the most entertaining part of the show, nominally directed by Casey Nicholaw.
When the two stars share the stage, Feinstein loses every time, despite his home-court advantage.
Surprisingly, he doesn't even fare well on his own. His takes on the Great American Songbook are overly reverent. The faster numbers, in particular, lack finger-snapping swing. And considering that he's been doing cabaret for years, it's odd that he hasn't developed much patter beyond telling us how much he loves Gershwin, et al.
It says something that Capeless gets the biggest applause of the night after belting "And the World Goes 'Round" out of the ballpark.
The concept of "All About Me" could have delivered in a Vegas-on-the-Borscht Belt way, and there are nice touches: an overture that throws familiar show-tune riffs in a blender, and distinct Edna and Feinstein Playbills. And, of course, you can't go wrong with Edna.
Still, a dame shouldn't be left to do all the heavy lifting.
Some egos, particularly in this business we call show, are way too big and unruly to share a spotlight. I mean that in the nicest possible way, to use a disclaimer often employed by the great Dame Edna Everage. It is, as it happens, Dame Edna of whom I am speaking.
That professionally famous, mauve-haired Australian housewife has returned to Broadway in a show called “All About Me” at Henry Miller’s Theater. But it is not only about her. And, ah, there’s the rub, to use another Edna-ism. Or is that from Shakespeare? Dame Edna has a way of making you believe she invented anything worth quoting — that is, if she’s given half a chance to wrap (and nearly smother) you in her feather-boa-constrictor embrace.
In “All About Me,” which opened on Thursday night, this most dominating of dames is given what feels like less than half a chance. The production also stars Michael Feinstein, the celebrated piano-playing crooner who possesses considerable gifts of his own. But they are of an entirely different stripe from the brasher talents commanded by Dame Edna. Seen side by side, in a production that brings to mind a desperately assembled television variety show from the 1970s, these two headliners clash like polka dots paired with plaid.
The appeal of a clash of titans — as in two divas going at it tooth and nail à la “Valley of the Dolls” — is clearly what the producers of “All About Me” were hoping to capitalize on. Early publicity on the show had it that Dame Edna (the alter ego of the fearless comedian Barry Humphries) and Mr. Feinstein were planning separate shows with similar titles. After some public trading of carefully phrased insults, it was announced that the Dame and the singer had agreed to appear together, though strategically leaked reports of skirmishes between them continued to surface.
But if you really want stars to collide, they had better be in the same universe. Wherever Mr. Feinstein appears, he gives the impression that he is in an intimate supper club from a time when Cole Porter and the Gershwins were the hippest songwriters working. Dame Edna makes you feel that you have been invited into her own less-than-humble home, palatial enough to accommodate a self-esteem that turns current trends into personal trophies.
Mr. Feinstein’s style is silky, glossy and whispery; Dame Edna’s is coarse, loud and harsh. But the most important difference between them is their egos, or rather how they make use of them. For all I know, Mr. Feinstein’s vanity is just as large and carnivorous as Dame Edna’s. But he presents himself as an eternally romantic boy who labors gratefully in the service of the Great American Songbook.
Dame Edna, on the other hand, labors only in the cause of her own greater glory. To put it bluntly, she belongs in a show called “All About Me,” and Mr. Feinstein does not. Pretending otherwise does neither performer any favors.
The show’s creative team, which includes the director Casey Nicholaw and the writer Christopher Durang, have tried to turn these dissimilarities into selling points, as if their stars were the new Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. It’s a he-sings, she-squawks sort of format, with Mr. Feinstein performing Champagne standards like “My Romance” and Dame Edna doing her singular high-heeled stand-up.
There’s a running joke about each trying to have the other evicted from the theater, before a brawny stage manger (Jodi Capeless) steps in and insists they play nice. This involves their being allowed alternating minutes of performance time, until they finally settle into a couple of duets (written by Mr. Feinstein) about how different yet strangely compatible they are.
But neither star has time to get a groove going that would define the perimeters of a complete, self-contained fantasy world. No matter how radiantly Mr. Feinstein is singing or how amusingly Dame Edna is riffing, you’re aware of the presence of the other, just waiting to break in. The show starts to feel like one long, repeated session of coitus interruptus.
Wearing the expected series of resplendently tacky gowns (by Stephen Adnitt), Dame Edna is allowed a few moments to patronize and embarrass audience members as only she can. She gets off a few zingers that linger. And I would never trade the memory of having seen Dame Edna crash her way through Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (with the backup dancers Gregory Butler and Jon-Paul Mateo).
More surprisingly, after declaring the theater a “Stephen Sondheim-free zone,” Dame Edna delivers her own version of that composer’s “Ladies Who Lunch,” and it’s terrific. She uses the fear and anger that are part of any comedian’s makeup to turn an overperformed song into a funny, aggressive and bizarrely affecting acknowledgment of mortality.
I should also say that “All About Me” has the wittiest overture in town, a crazy quilt of snippets from a host of Broadway musicals: vamps from “Sweet Charity” and “Cabaret,” a swelling strain from “The Phantom of the Opera,” a glowing passage from “Sunday in the Park With George.” No segment lasts for more than a few seconds, so just when you’re starting to settle into the shape of a familiar melody, it’s pulled out from under you. This turns out be all too fitting a preface for the fragmented show that follows.
Professional wrestling and gangsta rap have long had bitter, ego-fueled rivalries. So why shouldn't musical theater, another form of entertainment that encourages flamboyant self-expression and the willing suspension of disbelief, have its own fabulous feud?
Granted, All About Me (* * * out of four), which opened Thursday at Broadway's Henry Miller's Theatre, isn't a conventional musical. It's more a cabaret act writ large, with a generous dollop of stand-up comedy, courtesy of self-proclaimed "gigastar" Dame Edna Everage, aka Aussie funnyman Barry Humphries.
And Dame Edna and co-star Michael Feinstein don't expect us to buy into the show's superficial premise: that each believes the project is a solo vehicle and views the other as an intruder. This comic conceit is reinforced by the playbills — half show Feinstein on the cover and don't mention Humphries or Edna in the credits, and vice versa — and a bit of shtick featuring brawny Gregory Butler and Jon-Paul Mateo as Edna's security detail.
But we never doubt that this leading man and, um, lady will forge an understanding, through song and dance and humor. Feinstein, a ferocious musical multitasker, delivers robust performances of some of the songbook standards he has championed throughout his career. He also introduces new tunes, including a few witty confections co-written with Humphries.
Edna raises her voice in song as well, most memorably on a pair of the originals: the deliciously droll The Dingo Ate My Baby and We Get Along Amazingly Well, a sort of perverse buddy song in which she and Feinstein swap pithy pop-culture references. In contrast, a cover of The Ladies Who Lunch is funnier as an idea than it is in execution.
The dame is, predictably, more in her element when addressing her adoring, vulnerable audience. "I don't pick on people, I empower them," she insisted at a recent preview, before singling out choice victims. One woman who declared that her house was "indescribable" proved particularly ripe for humiliation, as did another who spoke of having domestic help. "What Latin American country does she come from?" Edna inquired sweetly.
Public figures from Susan Boyle to beleaguered New York Gov. David Paterson were also targets, as was Feinstein, of course. Given its cheeky and undeniably flimsy foundation, the show would never fly if its stars merely kissed and made up. Thus, while Feinstein's fuming ceases once a truce is brokered, Edna continues to get her digs in, hilariously. The girl can't help it.
You could argue, in fact, that All About Me isn't really a fair fight. Still, it's a good excuse to see a couple of consummate entertainers match wits.