“Martha Plimpton Sings?” is the title of the 70-minute set the accomplished screen-and-stage actress brought to the American Songbook series for a Saturday night double-header. The answer to that question, decidedly, is: She certainly does! Plimpton surprised audiences with a self-assured, hard-as-nails rock persona covering a soft showbiz center.
Thesp has been a constant Broadway presence over the past few seasons, with strong performances in “Shining City,” “The Coast of Utopia,” “Top Girls” and “Pal Joey,” notching three consecutive Tony noms. Plimpton proved her musical-comedy mettle in the outstanding performance of last year’s revival of the Rodgers and Hart show, capping the turn with a perfectly pitched rendition of “Zip.”
That didn’t prepare the Songbook audience for Plimpton to storm onstage in a trenchcoat (over a slinky red dazzler), grab the microphone and launch into Randy Newman’s blues rocker “It’s Money That I Love” and the Smiths’ “Ask.”
After that startling opening and some charming patter, she switched gears with two 1930s show tunes, “By Myself” and “Get Happy,” surely the first time those four songs have been heard in such juxtaposition.
For all her rough talk — she jokes about two abortions, for starters — Plimpton is a Broadway baby from the Age of Aquarius, and literally so; she was born and bred backstage at the original production of “Hair.”
Instead of choosing to sing that show’s “Frank Mills,” which her mother, Shelley Plimpton, memorably introduced in 1967, she turned to a somewhat baffling “Colored Spade.” This was followed by John Lennon’s “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” and the 1918 Tin Pan Alley tune “Pickaninny’s Paradise” (with an especially good trumpet solo from Kevin Batchelor). This segment understandably caused afair share of audience discomfort, although the Lennon song was effective.
Also sharp were Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” accompanied by singer Lucy Wainwright Roche; and Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” with the act’s director, Eric Gilliland, whistling into a microphone. Music director Dan Lipton led the fine band.
Plimpton then turned the tables on the audience, confessing that at age 9 she went to see “Peter Pan” at the Lunt. When Sandy Duncan went flying out over the audience, little Martha exclaimed, “I gotta do that!” and a career-path was set. This led into a fine rendition of the Comden-Styne-Green “Never Never Land,” following Broadway-style New York anthems by Cole Porter and Charles Strouse. “Martha,” from Tom Waits, closed the set.
The patter that punctuated the act was for the most part witty and clever. In describing her upbringing on the then-wild Upper West Side, Plimpton paused to explain that the Allen Room is situated on the former site of the New York Coliseum, the long-moribund edifice that squatted on the Columbus Circle site for a half-century until replaced by the Time Warner Center. Plimpton described it as “the world’s largest urinal,” incisively evoking an entire era for many in the audience.