‘Divas’ does it up right at Donmar

Cabaret season gains attention

LONDON — Here’s one of the more pleasurable games of compare-and-contrast offered by the London stage this summer. Which musical moment from the fifth “Divas at the Donmar” series was the most memorable?

Perhaps it was season opener Janie Dee singing the Alan Ayckbourn composition “Copytype” — a comic hymn to the confusions caused at the keyboard.

Or maybe Ruby Turner, the Jamaica-born, Birmingham-based rhythm-&-blues artist whose scorching “I Would Rather Go Blind” left both the performer and her public in tears.

Or Philip Quast, the self-described Australian “farm boy,” turning his memories of opening night at the National Theater in “Sunday in the Park With George” into a solo tour de force.

Or even Kristin Chenoweth, a London unknown who brought cheers with a wonderful new song, “Taylor,” about a Starbucks employee whose more than generous service leads to “extra foam” — and “caffeinated” love.

That these various showstoppers could follow swiftly on each other’s heels honors an event, programmed by Donmar general manager Nick Frankfort under the advisory eye of a.d. Sam Mendes, that has become an increasingly crucial part of the annual cabaret calendar on either side of the Atlantic.

American agents and managers are putting clients forward more and more. Scarcely had the applause subsided from Chenoweth’s Aug. 27 opening before her New York rep was talking up other clients Alice Ripley (a good idea) and Linda Eder (a bad one) as Donmar prospects. It helps that past Donmar “divas” live on via CDs and/or videos from the engagement — Betty Buckley and Clive Rowe, among them.

A CD of Quast’s stand, this year’s lone sellout, is due Sept. 23, produced by Martin McCallum, chairman of the Donmar board. At the end of October, a handful of Donmar “divas” will appear in the Welsh capital of Cardiff during that city’s Intl. Festival of Musical Theater.

“Divas at the Donmar” began in 1998, largely at the behest of Mark Shenton, a local theater journalist and Cambridge semi-contemporary of Mendes (Shenton is a few years older). As Shenton recalls, “All I wanted to do in life was bring Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway to London.” That he did, followed by Barbara Cook, who had previously played the Donmar during the pre-Mendes era in 1987, and London’s own Imelda Staunton.

The next year, with Frankfort at the helm, saw Patti LuPone’s “Matters of the Heart” followed by Audra McDonald — then pretty much new to London — and local jazz favorite Sam Brown. This is the first season to host four performers. Explains Frankfort: “Four allows for a much more diverse spirit.”

What’s fascinating has been to see some “divas” deliver what it is that they do, while others have used this address as a chance for a cultural makeover. Michael Ball, last year’s leading box office draw, jettisoned his usual large-auditorium crowd-pleasers in favor of a more restless and searching repertory: For every Ball stalwart put off by the change in direction, a new fan, presumably, was found.

This year, it was Quast, who, with director Matthew Ryan and an esteemed visiting musical director in Tony winner Jason Robert Brown, devised easily the season’s riskiest and most rewarding show.

That’s in no way to discredit two-time Olivier Award winner Dee, who makes up in a tremendously winning immediacy what she may lack in vocal chops. Her evening got off to a rough start with an all but inaudible cover of the Barry Manilow song “Dancin’ Fool,” but by the second act the audience was feasting on every nuanced inflection of comic set-piece “Checkout Lil.” Dee played to 82% in an £80,000 ($122,500) season budgeted to break even at 75% capacity.

Turner turned a theater soon to host Chekhov and Shakespeare into a veritable joint, with the audience on its feet jiving at what the singer drolly called “my little gospel vibe.” (Talk about understatement!)

On her first-ever trip to the UK (the English, she announced admiringly, if rather unfortunately, are very “culture-ized”), Chenoweth played the Oklahoma babe abroad, her amazing ability to swing between scat and coloratura silencing those skeptics who may have been feeling a case of the cutes.

But little can compare with the utterly unaffected bravura of Quast, singing largely about fathers in the first act and sons (of whom he has three) in the second while never once forcing the theme. And letting rip as he recalled the demands of his star turn in Sondheim’s “Sunday,” Seurat’s Pointillist genius paling in immediate comparison to the dots of a difficult score, the performer encapsulated an entire artistic journey in the neatest of rhymes: “Color and light/I got through opening night.”

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