BWW Review: Celebrity Series of Boston Presents AN EVENING WITH CHRISTINE EBERSOLE
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by Nancy Grossman
An Evening with Christine Ebersole
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at Sanders Theatre, Memorial Hall, Harvard University, 45 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA, on Saturday, January 26, 2013
Thirty years ago, two-time Tony Award-winning actress Christine Ebersole spent one season as a "Not Ready for Prime Time" player on Saturday Night Live, and she made a lot of wisecracks on this Saturday night in her Celebrity Series of Boston debut which she dubbed "The Age Before Beauty Cabaret." But her comedic commentary was merely the icing on a rich, multi-layered concert which showcased the range of Ebersole's voice and musical stylings. She has done it all, from the small screen, to movies, to concerts and recordings, and to Broadway. On this cold, January night, she warmed the intimate Sanders Theatre with a master class in cabaret artistry at Harvard University. Not bad for the girl from Winnetka, Illinois.
Renowned Musical Director John Oddo on piano, Mike Monaghan on reeds, Mike Rivard on bass, and Dave Ratajczak on drums opened the set with the 1938 jazz composition "Big Noise from Winnetka." Moments later, Ebersole emerged to take center stage, cupped her hands around the microphone and joined in with a trumpet-like scat. Although the set list was heavy on songs from the 1930s, her show felt fresh and contemporary with an updated version of "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" and a reference to the TSA prior to singing "You Forgot Your Gloves." There was nothing stale or dated about "Blame it On My Youth" (1934/Oscar Levant, Edward Heyman) with Ebersole's excellent phrasing and emoting at work.
Between songs, she kept us entertained with witty banter about the magic of Hollywood, the time and expense involved in trying to look young at her age (she'll be sixty next month), and the old-fashioned romantic notion of train travel as a segue into "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe." The latter was just one of many selections made famous by other stars, among them Judy Garland, Shirley Jones, Ethel Merman, and Frank Sinatra, but Ebersole showed no qualms in making them her own. The Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" from Showboat illustrated her ability to convincingly cover a classic, as well as exhibit her love for her husband Bill Moloney.
It was a treat to hear Ebersole and the musicians do a sultry rendition of the title song from 42nd Street, as she won her first Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for playing Dorothy Brock in the 2001 Broadway revival of that show. More recently, she won a slew of Off-Broadway theater awards (2006) and the 2007 Tony in the same category for her bravura performance in the dual role of Edith Bouvier Beale and "Little Edie" Beale in Grey Gardens. To my (and my companion's) great relief, she recited a portion of Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" in the voice of Edie, and sang the haunting "Another Winter in a Summer Town," magically blended with "Drift Away." Perhaps more than any other songs from the GG score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, these can stand on their own merit outside the framework of the story and Ebersole's delivery was soulful.
In a program filled with feel-good moments, two anecdotes stood out for their touching personal depth. She shared the story that she and her husband adopted two children from opposite ends of the earth (China and Minnesota) and that they both arrived on the same day, within an hour of each other. Embracing them and her older child made her aware that, although fame had eluded her, she held her fortune in her arms. The unusual juxtaposition of "Tender Shepherd" (Peter Pan) with "If I Were a Bell" (Guys and Dolls) ensured that no one in the audience will ever hear those two songs again without the image of Ebersole loving her kids.
The other personal disclosure involved the singer's ninety-five year old mother ("she gave birth to me when she was sixty!") who lives with them in Maplewood, New Jersey. Ebersole credits her mother with teaching her as a child to sing from the Methodist hymnal and they sometimes sit at the piano and relive those moments. With the most simple and beautiful vocal, she shared "How Can I Keep From Singing" with only piano accompaniment. At that point, it was fitting for her to close with "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries," aptly recommending to "live and laugh at it all."
Cue wild, appreciative applause; singer leaves stage; singer returns to stage with the observation, "One of the funny conventions of cabaret - the false exit!" Assuring us that she would never just leave like that, Ebersole sang a tribute to another great cabaret artist, Eartha Kitt ("Mink, Schmink"), and she invited the audience to join in on her definite final number, the pop standard (introduced by Frank Sinatra in 1953) "Young at Heart." She may have been told she was over the hill in Hollywood, but her career has flourished since she moved to Maplewood ("What a difference a leaf makes!"). She certainly convinced everyone in the 1,166 seat theatre that the secret to eternal youth is right inside your heart.
Photo credit: Christine Ebersole (courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston)