Concert Review: Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

 

Alan Cumming (Photo by Tré)

By Megan Volpert

The grand entrance applause has barely died down when Alan Cumming—10 seconds into the first verse of Annie Lennox’s “Why” while wearing leather pants and a navy blue shawl-collar tuxedo jacket—gets his first laugh for grinning broadly into the already-teary audience at Atlanta Symphony Hall and singing, “I tell myself too many times / Why don’t you ever learn to keep your big mouth shut?” It was a decidedly blue-haired mix of old Broadway biddies and hip LGBT folks who welcomed him for Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs on Friday night, and the crowd breathed an immediate sigh of relief at having gathered there to be amongst their own.

After all, when you go to see anyone’s live performance, it’s because you’re compelled by some mutual interest or feeling worth examining for 90 minutes or so. Cumming’s crowd is a terrific bunch, raucously astute and adorably fierce, drawn together by an admiration for those qualities in Cumming that are on display in all of his stage work. Cumming prefers to think of himself as “an actor who sings.” He’s also the author of two terrific books, a novel and a memoir. This show devotes slightly more time to talking than singing, with the pacing of stories alongside the set list of songs thoroughly well-balanced and apt to hold attention. “I think fun should have a structure to it,” he remarks early on.

The show fits Cumming like a glove, a dizzying blend of staccato commentary on the hardships of any life and full-throated belting of nostalgic tunes both fresh and retro. He’s accompanied by three musicians: his Emmy-winning musical director Lance Thorn on the Steinway, drummer and guitarist Chris Jago, and carbon-fiber cellist Eleanor Norton. The arrangements are by turns epic and jazzy, retaining what is familiar about the compositions but shading it with tones suited to bringing out Cumming’s powerfully emotive command of the vocals. He is sometimes acting or slipping in lies that better express an emotional truth, but he never for a moment phoning it in.

This production is carefully crafted; it’s not spontaneous. It began off the cuff in the dressing room after his second go around in Cabaret, as an after hours venue he called Club Cumming, but it became a wildly successful show three years ago and he’s been touring it ever since. Throughout the show, he consistently reflects on the importance of nevertheless forming a genuine connection to every unique audience. The house lights expand and contract so he can properly look back at us from time to time. He comments on the specific reactions of people scattered within his sightline of the first few rows.

The music is all there on the album, from Billy Joel to Miley Cyrus and from Brecht to Minnelli. There’s one new anecdotal bit sprung forth from the Trumpian cloud under which we, Cumming’s target audience, now live—Steve Siddle’s insulting letter to Trump in the style of Robert Burns (i.e.: “Thou eunuch of thought, thou New Yorker who was never south of Mulberry, thou crack-pot,” et cetera). Touring through Georgia, Cumming displays no trepidation over whether the occasional political jabs amongst a sea of romance or family or fame anecdotes will offend. He is glad to delight or give a small fright in equal measure. He’s just lovingly working the magic of his “talent to amuse,” as he sings in the final stretch.

He tells that great anecdote about Judy Garland seeing her daughter perform for the first time and dabbing her tears with a powder puff because she had no handkerchief, then giving that puff to Liza Minnelli and what a treasured memento that must be—if only any part of the story were true. Oh, we laughed so hard, even though we’d heard it on the album version before. He cried quite a bit while singing “Dinner at 8,” blowing his nose afterward several times before cracking a quick joke on the two habits of Scots—sentimentality and drinking.

I love the Sings Sappy Songs – Live At The Cafe Carlyle album, but you know what? I love it alone in my home. Alan Cumming deserves an audience, and the people in his audiences deserve each other. We are struggling right now—immigrants, queers, artists like Cumming—and sometimes it’s quite nice to get together to sing, laugh and cry. I won’t say I left feeling happy, but I certainly did leave feeling sappy, as advertised.

Megan Volpert lives in Decatur, teaches in Roswell and writes books about popular culture.

2 Responses to Concert Review: Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

  1. Manning Harris

    March 6, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    Thank you for this fine review! I wanted to see Alan in concert but could not make it this time. I heard it was a sold-out good time; you’ve confirmed it! I’m gonna have to get his CD; thanks again.

  2. Dyanne

    March 25, 2017 at 8:17 pm

    I really want to see Alan Cummings in Davis California know of any free or discounted tickets? Please &Thank you!

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