There is nothing like a dame. When Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote that song, they doubtless did not have the far-from-average widow Everage in mind, but “Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance” lends glorious credence to the lyric. OK, so for anyone already intimate with the “glittering gigastar” and her terrifyingly interactive brand of tough love and uninterrupted self-adulation, the Australian harridan with a heart’s return to Broadway will represent more of the same. But when it’s fueled by creator Barry Humphries’ sweetly savage wit and inimitable observations, more of the same can only be a good thing.
“It’s been a tempestuous few weeks, but after four years of anxiety, the nation has spoken. The majority have got their will,” proclaims Edna. “I am back on Broadway!”
Much like her Tony-winning 1999 hit “Dame Edna: The Royal Tour,” the new show is part papal audience, part group therapy and part public humiliation, with a handful of raucously voiced, clumsily danced musical numbers thrown in. Why tamper with a winning formula?
While Edna traditionally occupies only the second act of Humphries’ live shows in Australia and Britain, the relative inaccessibility for American auds of the actor’s other staple characters leaves it to the dame to fly solo in Stateside engagements.
From the moment Edna descends from above on a pair of giant butterfly-wing spectacles, the first act of “Back With a Vengeance” has the efficacy of a comic machine gun, an exhilaratingly exhausting barrage all but impossible to sustain. Perhaps inevitably, a dilution in energy follows intermission (or “pause for reflection,” as it’s termed in the Playbill) when Edna shares the stage more frequently with her four backup dancers (the Gorgeous Ednaettes and the Equally Gorgeous TestEdnarones) as well as victims plucked from the audience.
What makes the show so outrightly enjoyable despite this slight imbalance is the dizzying alacrity of Humphries’ ad libs and his uncanny (“spooky,” Edna might say) ability to retain and refer back to the names and personal data mined from a series of randomly selected targets in the audience.
This sharp-wittedness, the keen social satire and timely cultural references keep the persona fresh and spontaneous. In what must surely be one of the most remarkable feats of endurance for any fictional comic alter ego, next year will mark 50 years since Humphries first slipped into the frock and slingbacks of the housewife from suburban Moonee Ponds, Melbourne.
Despite the evolution from gauche hausfrau to wisteria-wigged celebrity icon and self-appointed swami to the world, Edna, for all her ostentation, has retained a core of profound ordinariness (“I’m still Edna from the block”), wherein lies her charm. She’s like the most self-absorbed, unapologetically crass, monstrously invasive and haughtily judgmental relative at any family gathering, all cloaked in a faux-benevolent aura of “cutting-edge caring” and “radical unselfishness.”
The Everage family regulars all are mentioned here, including Edna’s late invalid husband Norm, a research patient who became “the face of the prostate”; her artistic son Kenny (“a practicing homeopath”); and disappointing daughter Valmai. But it’s the hapless handful in the front rows that catch Dame Edna’s attention who provide the lion’s share of material.
A word of warning to women: choose your footwear for the evening with great care. In one of the show’s most hilarious interactions, Edna thrusts a giant butterfly net out into the audience, demanding that shoes be deposited for psychic evaluation.It’s when the star’s curiosity is piqued by an attendee’s dress sense (“I don’t know how I’d describe what you’re wearing. Affordable, I think.”), personal history and home decor that Humphries really fires on all cylinders. Never before have harmless-sounding requests like “Tell me about your home, darling” or “Talk me through your day, possum” struck such terror into people’s hearts.
Slyly acknowledging the presence of critics on press night and pointing to the lessons to be learned in dramatic structure from her work, Edna summons her prey onstage in act two to workshop a scene from her forthcoming bioplay “The Girl From Oz.” While the slapdash results momentarily loosen the spell of Humphries’ tight command, the spirited participation of Edna’s recruits and the relief of those who escaped her “nurturing” interest makes for upliftingly silly fun.
And while Humphries’ British and Australian shows perhaps benefit from deeper first-hand knowledge of local cultural foibles and class indicators, Edna is sufficiently keyed into American mores to claim rightful domain on any U.S. stage, tossing in references to Bill O’Reilly, the Clinton Library (including a question from George W. Bush: “How many books do I need for a library? Is Laura’s ‘DaVinci Code’ enough?”) and her current competition on Broadway.
Backed by regular accompanist Wayne Barker tinkling away at the piano and bathed in Jane Cox’s warm lighting, Edna is outfitted in amusingly gaudy gowns by Will Goodwin and Stephen Adnitt. Brian Thomson’s set opts for basic plush, with twin chandeliers, a scalloped curtain and a pedestal vase bulging with the dame’s signature blooms, gladioli, athletically hurled into the audience to be waved in the traditional closing song.