New York has always been a magnet for the greatest talent on the planet, but never before has so much of it arrived at the same time. At the risk of sounding like a mouthpiece for the Chamber of Commerce, I can’t remember when I’ve seen so much concentrated excitement. People are crowding into cabarets, the theater is exploding and for a change the buzz is as pumped as the hype. You could stay out every night until Memorial Day and still not see it all.
With Blossom Dearie held over indefinitely at Danny’s Skylight Room, Julie Wilson polishing her crown as the reigning cabaret diva at the new Michael’s Pub on top of Bill’s Gay Nineties, and Sally Mayes, Dee Hoty and Nancy Opel cleverly re-creating the close harmonies of the famous Boswell Sisters at Rainbow & Stars until Michael Feinstein moves in March 28, there’s already a heady supply of music. But at the top of the recommended list, I urge you to experience Fascinating Aïda , the smartest, funniest and most captivating nightclub act New York has seen in donkey’s years.
The act is playing at the Firebird Cafe on West 46th Street, the town’s swankiest new watering hole-a throwback to the good old days. If the glamorous Firebird restaurant next door is like the dining room of a Russian czar, then the little Firebird Cafe is like the private chamber where Rasputin staged his orgies: a pink and mulberry womb that seats only 70.
Fascinating Aïda , the act that has me raving, consists of three dizzy dames from London draped in sequins who are already the rage of Europe. Adele Anderson is the lanky brunette with what looked like an Adam’s apple (don’t ask), self-described as “cabaret’s revenge on Julie Andrews,” Issy van Randwyck is the sexy blonde from Holland and Dillie Keane, their Irish leader-pianist who also does most of the talking and writes the songs, looks not unlike the Duchess of York on an all-night binge. Their material is as unique as it is original, and their timing, delivery and musicianship are impeccable and hilarious. They sing about condoms, hickeys, double showers, golden showers, champagne in the navel, trysts with men who turn out to be “more than a little bit married,” the thrill of colonic irrigation and the danger of slipped disks post-coitum. Their songs are both haunting and hysterical, but their message is clear: In the twilight world of endangered heterosexuals, it’s hell for aging Spice Girls to find a genuinely unattached, non-weird male.
Exploring the problems and alternatives faced by women who are horny but respectable, they tackle the “Herpes Tango” with special verve, barbecue Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya and everything Kurt Weill ever wrote on a tone-deaf German parody called “Lieder” and find nothing improper about “Shouting ‘ Titanic !’ on the QE2 / Or meeting Leonardo DiCaprio and saying ‘Goo-goo-goo!'” They may be imports, but they’re up on Marv Albert, Mike Tyson and Monica Lewinsky, too. Nobody leaves unscathed. They aim the arrows of their sexual satire with such perfect precision, they hit a bull’s-eye every time while throwing themselves all over the furniture, leaving you touched, informed and helplessly in hysterics.
Fascinating Aïda is hard to describe and impossible to categorize. There’s nothing like this anywhere else in New York or in the rest of America, either. As one British critic put it during their sold-out run in the West End, “See them before you die, otherwise your life will have been meaningless.” At the Firebird Cafe, you have only until Saturday, April 11, to find out what all the shouting is about. They’re Absolutely Fabulous , and then some.
You have even less time to catch Dixie Carter’s annual romp at the Cafe Carlyle. Sleek and satiny as ever, she’s a one-woman master class in showmanship, strutting through Cole Porter’s “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love,” popping like a champagne cork on a breakneck tempo “Lady Is a Tramp,” blowing a real-live trumpet, swinging some fine bluegrass hoedown music on her amazing mouth organ, then reducing you to tears on a brilliant medley of unlikely songs that reflect the changing emotional subtexts of a woman’s life. Nobody but Miss Dixie and her ace accompanist Mike Renzi would think of combining Bruce Springsteen, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Kern and Bob Dylan to teach us a few things about passion, bitterness and the wisdom that experience brings. Poignant, brittle, carnivorous or adorable, Miss Dixie is the consummate pro. Every time I see her, I learn something. She vacates the premises March 28, so do not dawdle.
In the theater, if you haven’t seen John Leguizamo’s raunchy, volcanic one-man show Freak , what are you waiting for? The only funny drag queen in the awful To Wong Foo movie, Mr. Leguizamo is even zanier on stage. This clown of many voices seems to have been fired from a cannon somewhere in Queens. Singing, leaping to a salsa beat, flying like a plane with the exit doors open, running up and down the aisles, climbing ladders and invading the boxes, he utilizes every part of the theater and you never know where he’s going to crash. In the process, he paints a broad canvas of New York as an ethnic melting pot of diabolically funny culture clashes.
His fellow Latinos get the worst beating as he imitates his brawling parents (“with accents so thick, they couldn’t even understand each other”), his home (“like the inside of a papaya”), his overweight kid brother and his crazy religious Puerto Rican grandmother (who was so in league with spirits from hell “she thought The Exorcist was a documentary”). He plays sensitive adolescents, Jewish whores, macho Italian Guidos, frat-house preppies, Mayan Indians and everyone of every gender who ever lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. Whether he is talking to his penis, auditioning for Lee Strasberg, or ribbing the Irish (“What did they ever give the world but U2, whiskey and cops?”), he’s rowdy, randy, rude and a real riot. Every show is sold out, and this is the first time I have ever been accosted by a man in a theater lobby brandishing an empty checkbook, begging me to fill in any amount in exchange for my ticket and screaming ” I came all the way from Utah to see this !” Short of selling your children into slavery, I don’t know what you have to do to get a ticket to Freak ,
Marsha Mason is giving the performance of her life in Amazing Grace , the powerful and disturbing new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael ( The Shadow Box ) Cristofer that is leaving audiences devastated. Playing a serial killer on death row, she leads us on a guided tour of the warped human mind and illuminates the complex shadows and conflicting emotions of a woman who is neither monster nor saint but who deserves understanding beyond the tabloid headlines. Driven to distraction by the poverty and desperation of a hopeless situation, here is a woman who feeds her terminally ill mother rat poison while watching a TV quiz show. It looks like a clear case of madness, but the writer and the actress dig deeper, and before this harrowing play is over, we know everything there is to know about a woman more complicated than she appears.
Amazing Grace adds dimension to the familiar horror stories we hear about on the 6 o’clock news, filling in all the gray areas in a tormented life. The play is brutal and chilling, from clinical discussions of the optional methods of capital punishment to the squalor that follows Ms. Mason from a loveless life through the deaths of eight people she cared about most (every time one of them was on the verge of leaving her, out came the rat poison) to the final hours of inner salvation (death by lethal injection while “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” is played on a battery-operated hand organ). Throughout, this wrenchingly honest actress plays a Typhoid Mary with a hearty, infectious laugh, natural warmth and a face that melts your heart. Sweet as nectar one minute, confused and delirious the next, she gives a performance that is rangy and electrifying.
The play is based on the true story of Velma Barfield, a sweet, unassuming grandmother who read her Bible every day, crocheted dolls and in 1984 became the first woman executed in the United States in 22 years. Ms. Mason offers no apology, but she lets you know she’s a serial killer with more than one level of perception, and you end up understanding her even if you don’t exactly want to invite her over for tea and sympathy. In a superb production that also includes gripping turns by such polished pros as Carlin Glynn and Bethel Leslie, it is still the galvanizing passion of the star that makes Amazing Grace an unforgettable experience