Barry Humphries' monstrously funny incarnation of the Aussie housewife still retains its savage wit.
It’s a joy to have Dame Edna Everage back on Broadway, regardless of the indignities she’s forced to suffer in “All About Me.” After umpteen appearances, Barry Humphries’ monstrously funny incarnation of an Australian housewife run amok on fame and flattery still retains its savage wit. But Christopher Durang and his multiple co-scribes have to answer for the lame idea of teaming up La Belle Dame Sans Merci with the cafe singer and musical jack-of-all-trades, Michael Feinstein. Better Larry the Cable Guy than a musical-theater performer whose sensibility is so at odds with hers.
Certain elements of Casey Nicholaw’s production give us an idea of where the creatives were coming from and how they hoped to trade on the comic absurdity of pairing up a slick sophisticate like Feinstein with a divine vulgarian like Dame Edna.
In Art Deco spirit and design, Anna Louizos’ multiple-level set — a stylized white-on-white fantasia of a circa-1930s nightclub bandstand — perfectly suits Feinstein’s musical tastes and archival impulses. As designated custodian of the Great American Songbook, this retro-music guy would like nothing better than to live his professional life suspended in that magical era between the wars.
Funny thing, the setting also suits Dame Edna by appealing to her inflated sense of elegance. (The purple tint that lighting designer Howell Binkley throws over the cut-out designs on the side walls even complements her signature lavender wig.)
There’s a sense of fun, too, in the dueling Playbills handed out to theatergoers, playfully maintaining the fiction that two performers would book the same legit house and be forced to duke it out for stage time. But those initially amusing conceits give way, once the show is under way.
Feinstein claims the stage first, lunging into a ferocious attack on “Strike up the Band” that seems several notches up from his customary delivery and already hints of the strain of this show’s overall concept design. Happily, after the usual homages to his gods — Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, and the great Gershwins — he recovers with a simple and heart-melting version of “My Romance.” He is, indeed, a consummate interpreter of our musical language.
It’s a good half-hour into the show (“Too late! Too late!” as the Mad Hatter admonished Alice) before Dame Edna hijacks the stage and dishes it out to her squirming fans. Resplendent in a lavishly beaded hot-pink gown (one of several flamboyant numbers from Stephen Adnitt, credited for Edna’s frocks), she snaps her choppers at the sitting ducks in the front rows and proceeds to flay these innocents alive for the values they hold dear.
By the time that Feinstein and Dame Edna call a truce and settle down for a cozy sing-along, it’s clear that their performance styles wouldn’t mesh in a million years — or, at least, until after an extended tour to hammer out the jagged edges. And even then, would they really alter one another’s views of the world?
With his inclination to save and savor our endangered national musical-theater heritage, Feinstein comes naturally to his worshipful and humor-free aesthetic. Of course he can respectfully deliver the entire score of “Oklahoma!” in the space of a minute; that’s what he does.
But nothing is sacred to Dame Edna, whose subversive comic nature is to challenge our assumptions and undermine our beliefs. Whether she’s mocking political pieties (“I miss communism”) or celebrity pretensions (by adopting a child from the same “spooky place in Africa” where Madonna shopped for hers), or just trying to gross us out (by claiming to have run into her late husband at an exhibition of “Bodies”), her wide, venomous smile is dangerous. In one fabulous green-blue gown — the Dietrich number — she even looks like a snake.
But the closest Dame Edna gets to challenging Feinstein’s tenets of faith is to request that their show observe “a Sondheim-free zone” and countering the Great American Songbook with an immortal ditty — “The Dingo Ate My Baby” — from the Great Australian Pamphlet.
Funny and cruel as this is, it hardly seems worth all the effort.