Last night I saw Penny Fuller’s show, The War Between My States, at the Metropolitan Room.
On paper, this show was amazing. You have a lovely performer who not only knows how to deliver a wide range of material, but she also exudes bucketfuls of charm and grace. Gather a bunch of classy, classy songs that balance the familiar and the discoverable. Use the conflicts between North and South in her background as an excuse for some really witty patter crafted by some of the best people working today. And present it using two of the best musicians in New York.
But, oh, cabaret lives in real-life and not on the page. And cabaret is hard.
I have to admit that the initial wallop of Fuller’s stage presence, lithe in a shoulder-less cocktail dress, with frizzy blond hair (actually looking like Petula Clark’s better-proportioned American cousin) completely bowled me over during her first number. I found myself thinking how interesting it was that Christine Ebersole has a loftier place in the cabaret hierarchy while other talents like this are around. Although, I had to admit that I wanted to reposition where Fuller had the microphone by about 2 inches.
By the third number, it occurred to me that the way Fuller was performing was a little more epic than a 20-person Monday crowd at the Metropolitan Room warranted. The director in me started to get concerned that she was treating the show as a higher-stake performance than she should. The cynic in me said that even though she wasn’t booked in the Carlyle, she was determined to do her show at the Metropolitan Room so big that it would be heard four miles uptown.
And yet, there were some great performances of songs happening: a gloriously sensitive When the Wind Blows South; a pert You’d Better Love Me; a sensitive New York State of Mind.
But also, the contrast of divorced parents, a Southern father living in the North and a Northern father living in the South (or vice-versa) as the basis for the show started to get a little thin. During a tepid New York medley it occurred to me that the other 20 people in the room probably had stronger feelings about the city. Oh, and there was the version of I’m Old Fashioned set to the accompaniment to Another Hundred People that sounded like a bad party trick. (I refuse to believe that David Gaines, a pianist with taste and technique so tidy that he verges on the immaculately meticulous originated the idea, but he did amazing work in making it seem plausible.)
And then came that harbinger of cabaret doom. Fuller had to ask Gaines what song came next. While he was playing the intro to it. The show spiraled downward from there. Blues in the Night sung in a blue spotlight followed by a comic patter number That’s How I Love the Blues that required constant prompting from Gaines (the funniest moment in the song when Gaines prompted Fuller with line “like an actor loves his cues”); Fuller needing to be prompted on her patter by her director sitting in the audience and eventually resorting to grabbing her script from the piano and desperately leafing through it; Dixie* as an eleven o’clock number; Fuller looking defeated and getting into apology mode with the audience. And the saddest part of this all was that glimpses of the performance, like her amazing version of Skyline, or her eventually-lovely reading of I’ve Got a Name showed what opportunities were wasted.
And speaking of wasted opportunities, the aspect of the evening that vexed me the most was the fact that she didn’t do either of her songs from Applause. Yes, it was only one year of her career forty years ago. But she has a genuine place in Broadway history for that role. And frankly, the main reason I went to see her was with the hope/expectation of hearing One Hallowe’en. And when you’ve introduced the song The Best Night of My Life on Broadway, how do you do anything else for an encore (even when it clearly wasn’t for anyone involved)?
Here’s her song line-up:
- Where Do I Belong**
- Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home
- When the Wind Blows South
- You’d Better Love Me
- New York State of Mind
- NYC / My City / You Can Be a New Yorker, Too
- I’m Old Fashioned
- Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?
- Sentimental Gentleman
- Forgotten Dreams**
- Blues in the Night
- That’s How Much I Love the Blues
- I Got a Name
- Encore: Whatever Time There Is
*This is fodder for a whole other post. **Guessing at the titles