Jenifer Lewis could no more give up diva-hood than she could give away her big, rich voice. Knowing this is part of the fun of "The Diva Is Dismissed," a one-woman show in which the singer/actress revisits key moments of her life in a comic spiritual quest to exorcise the diva that has become her personality.

Jenifer Lewis could no more give up diva-hood than she could give away her big, rich voice. Knowing this is part of the fun of “The Diva Is Dismissed,” a one-woman show in which the singer/actress revisits key moments of her life in a comic spiritual quest to exorcise the diva that has become her personality.

A diva, Lewis explains, “is someone who pretends they know who they are, and looks fabulous doing it.” Guided by an ethereal Ghost of Divas Past, Lewis, once dubbed the “reigning queen of high camp cabaret” by the New York Times, journeys back to see her 5-year-old self sing at church; her teenage self as a raunchy, raucous cheerleader; and other incarnations from too-serious drama school grad struggling in New York to disillusioned Hollywood hopeful grateful for a bit part in “Penitentiary Mama.”

Lewis, of course, portrays all the characters, including such standouts as a Baptist preacher and an already jaded 5-year-old. In the piece’s high point, she portrays a number of guests at a recent Christmas party back home in Kinloch, Mo., giving herself a terrific chance to poke fun at the locals and her own fish-out-of-water diva self. She even finds surprising poignance in the Baptist minister, now old, offering solace to the singer who, having played “to kings and queens — mostly queens,” grieves for the many friends she’s lost to AIDS.

But none of the characters is as compelling or entertaining as the diva herself, a persona as carefully etched as any by Lewis and director/co-writer Charles Randolph-Wright. The loose, cabaret structure of the show allows Lewis to interact with the audience, the better to showcase her capital-A Attitude. A fine singer in a gospel tradition, Lewis belts about seven tunes, some comic, some sentimental, most of which she penned (alone or with collaborators).

Even if the Dickens-inspired plot device could charitably be described as overused, Lewis transcends by the whirlwind of her personality (she once sang backup for Bette Midler, and there’s more than a hint of the Divine in the Diva). The irony, whether intentional or not, of devoting an entire show to her own life in the guise of shedding ego should be lost on no one. Thankfully, this diva won’t be dismissed entirely.

The Diva Is Dismissed

Joseph Papp Public Theater/Susan Stein Shiva Theater; 99 seats; $20

Production

A New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of a one-woman show in one act performed by Jenifer Lewis, written by Lewis and Charles Randolph-Wright. Directed by Randolph-Wright.

Creative

Musical direction, MichaelSkloff; additional material, Mark Alton Brown; lighting, David Castaneda; production stage manager, Jim Ring; general management, 101 Prods. Ltd. Producer, George C. Wolfe; managing director, Jason Steven Cohen; associate producers, Rosemarie Tichler, Kevin Kline. Opened Oct. 30, 1994. Reviewed Dec. 5. Running time: 1 HOUR,30 MIN.
Musical numbers: "Climb," "Grandma Small," "Killer Cheer," "And I Was Fired, " "Broadway Medley," "I Wanna Come Home," "Staring at the Moon."
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