As it opens in L.A. following a tour of much of the country, “Dame Edna: The Royal Tour” has just received the new National Broadway Theater Award for best play, a prize voted on by audiences at touring houses. This says quite a bit about the show, which is clearly a crowd-pleaser. But calling this a play is a stretch indeed, which Dame Edna herself would readily admit (although she’d happily, and not at all humbly, assent to the “best” part). Joshing the audience with acerbic wit, at one point the Australian “housewife superstar,” played as always by Barry Humphries, informs us that hers is the perfect show for senior citizens, since “there’s no plot they can lose.” That’s true. Those looking for a high-quality standup act with audience participation and production values will be satisfied with the Dame’s mainstream drag act; those seeking a bit more art for their money will find that once their giggling fades, they’re left with little they couldn’t have seen on TV.
In fact, the show begins with television, as the audience sees a quick selection of Dame Edna’s greatest TV hits, from her introduction decades ago to her success as a talkshow host. Then she enters, wrapped in a typically garishly glamorous costume, pink and aluminum, that’s peeled away during the opening number to reveal another garishly glamorous costume underneath, pink and black. She proceeds to “befriend” members of the audience, peppering those in the first few rows with queries and managing to insult them heartily while insisting it’s all in the name of love. In the second act, she begins inviting them up on stage for the climactic laughs of the evening.
As Dame Edna, Humphries demonstrates just the right ability to improvise while also keeping things moving. When he gleans a comic detail from the audience members he interrogates, he manages to return to it at just the right moment to advance his comic riffs, which often play off a supreme sense of cultural superiority. After all, Dame Edna, she never allows us to forget, is a megastar with taste and talent — sort of a Martha Stewart, Julia Child, and Madonna rolled into one — and she never hesitates to remind everyone of her brilliance.
Together with the character’s arch propriety, Humphries throws in a cruel and vulgar streak, which is the key to Dame Edna’s now multicontinental popularity. The show is not above grossout humor, and the Dame has rightly been compared with Don Rickles. Overall, it’s an impressive, very funny performance, and Humphries received the best actor National Broadway Theater Award for it. But again, it’s not really acting, even though it’s a good act.
The show is unquestionably at its best when Dame Edna is engaging with the crowd — her “possums,” she calls us. It’s at its worst when Dame Edna sings the few set pieces accompanied by pianist and stagehand Wayne Barker. Whether it’s the songs or the singing that’s supposed to be funny is never quite clear. The songs are not witty, and the singing’s awful, although Dame Edna knows just how to get applause anyway. That’s really what this is all about: A polished performer giving us a well-designed character delivering material that’s mostly extremely amusing, and making us enjoy it even when it’s not.
The trappings — set designer Kenneth Foy’s two-dimensional chandeliers and columns, for example, and Stephen Adnitt’s costumes, both for Edna and her two “Ednarettes” — are all just right.