Musical numbers: “Kansas City,” “Fever,” “Dream Baby,” “Hungary for Love,” “World Without Love,” “In My Life,” “Why Walk When You Can Fly,” “Frankie and Johnnie,” “I Need Your Love So Bad,” “Raining in My Heart,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Water Is Wide,” “Never Be the Sun,” “Danny Boy,” “Crazy,” “Everything Must Change,” “If I Fell,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “Stand By Me,” “Do Right Woman,” “You Are My Sunshine.”
A sizable talent goes strangely awry in Imelda Staunton’s solo cabaret (plus 10-piece band), the third and last bill in the Donmar Warehouse’s monthlong line-up of singing divas. I’m second to no one in my admiration for a diminutive English actress of seemingly unstoppable skill: There aren’t many women who could be definitive in such diverse assignments as “Uncle Vanya” (playing Sonya) , “Into the Woods” (winning an Olivier Award for her baker’s wife) and “Guys and Dolls” (an Adelaide to break your heart).
Sometimes, though, it’s better with a script, as Staunton’s foray into uncharted (for her) waters suggests. While she certainly has the vocal chops, running an appealing gamut from raunchy take-no-prisoners sass to vulnerability, the actress hasn’t answered the fundamental question behind such endeavors — what self do you hope to present, or are you in fact presenting, to an audience?
Perhaps the problem isone of equal parts timing and temperament: After the confidence of the Callaway sisters, Ann and Liz, followed by an ever-sublime Barbara Cook, Staunton could be forgiven for wanting to come across as a down home north London lass who seems as surprised as anyone by her inclusion in such a heady roster. That would account for a quintessentially British need to undercut and ironize everything, from her initial entrance to her outfit(s) to a choice of songs that eliminates the obvious (Staunton makes a point of not doing Sondheim) without necessarily accentuating the positive. “They have cabaret; we have panto,” says Staunton, defining the trans-Atlantic divide. She said it, not I, even if Maria Friedman at this same address has shown that nationality need not be a hindrance.
Staunton’s mockery is often — and in a time-honored English tradition — aimed at herself. Discussing Michelle Pfeiffer’s writhing atop the piano in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” she only succeeds in making clear that she’s no Michelle Pfeiffer. (We could have guessed that: Of the two, Staunton is less glamorous but the greater actress.) What — oddly — she only intermittently conveys is the same piercing affect that has defined even her essentially comic work in the Donmar’s memorable revival of “Habeas Corpus.” One doesn’t expect Staunton to write her own numbers — very few people, Ann Hampton Callaway aside, do that.
Absent, though, is the projection of personality that makes Barbara Cook sing before she ever opens her mouth. What diva draws attention to herself only to keep deflecting it?
On this evidence, Staunton could have a decent ancillary career doing covers. She’s good on Lennon and McCartney (a simple and affecting “In My Life,” most particularly) and Mary Chapin Carpenter, less hot when she turns into Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin. There are three Irish numbers; a thankfully unsentimental “Danny Boy” included, homages to Peggy Lee (“Fever”) and Patsy Cline (“Crazy”); and several opportunities for a sparkling if sometimes overeager band, who are inexplicably attired to resemble the Blue Brothers. For an encore, Staunton does “You Are My Sunshine,” the same number she sang so movingly at Richard Eyre’s National Theater farewell party last year.
Still, there’s little point in evoking so much offstage talent if the person center stage seems unsure what to project, an occasional archness aside. (That’s where the lack of a credited director is most noticeable.) Is Staunton just one of the girls, albeit blessed with delicious piles of hair, or a major star-in-the-making who has been hiding her chanteuse credentials behind some superb work in the classics? Whatever the answer, we’re left with a potential dynamo so busy telling us who she isn’t that we never discover just who she is.