“I’m not a singer,” Debbie Reynolds confesses midway through her delightfully energetic whirlwind of an act at the Carlyle. “I’m a vaudevillian, kind of a performer who does a variety of things.” That she is; the spunky powder keg is no longer cute as a button, and her voice wavers here and there, but she is showmanship incarnate and well-nigh unsinkable.
Star starts with a shaky-voiced “Gee but It’s Good to Be Here,” but quickly sets the tone with her rendition of “I’m Still Here,” with Sondheim’s lyrics retooled to address the bumpy life and times of Debbie. (“I lived through ‘How the West Was Won’ — but I’m here!” gets a laugh.)
The evening settles down to mostly chat and plenty of jokes, with sung lines interspersed here and there. Reynolds is a consummate performer and then some; during the 70-minute set, she goes out of her way to make eye contact with patrons in all corners of the room. Wrapped in a gown of green sequins, with gold-sequined shoulders and a side slit from here to there, she confides: “I just let the one leg stick out. Everything else is shot.”
In the first half of the set, Reynolds relates her personal history: how her white trash family moved from Texas to California; how she became Miss Burbank at 16, immediately winning a screen test at Warner Bros. (where Jack Warner himself changed her name from Mary Frances to Debbie); and how her featured role singing “I Wanna Be Loved by You” in the 1950 Fred Astaire film “Three Little Words” led to almost immediate stardom in “Singin’ in the Rain” opposite Gene Kelly.
That was 57 years ago, and Reynolds was already 20 at the time. She makes much of her vintage, wondering whether the younger members of the audience have any idea who she is. (“Hi, I’m Connie Stevens,” she chirps. “Well, we married the same schmuck.”)
Elsewhere, she introduces herself as “Princess Leia’s mother.” Carrie Fisher’s dad, Eddie, serves as a running gag, only partially concealing a still-smarting wound. It has been 50 years since the picture-perfect hubby and father ditched his bride to barge down the Nile with that celluloid Cleopatra Elizabeth Taylor (whom Debbie pointedly adds is three months older than she is). Reynolds jokes that “some of you know me over the years through the Enquirer,” although it is no joke. Commenting on her three disastrous marriages, she suggests she should marry Burt Reynolds: She wouldn’t have to change her name, and they could share wigs.
The show’s second half consists mostly of impressions — Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Barbra Streisand; all are amusing if not necessarily spot on, betraying that this stint at the Carlyle is a patched-together reduction of the nightclub show Reynolds has been touring in for years.
The Streisand segment is very funny but unfortunately breaks apart the set; there’s no room in a New York cabaret for the star to leave the stage for a one-minute costume and wig change (and then again to remove the wig) while the band plays and patrons look around for a waiter. Even so, the Streisand-ish proboscis is pretty spectacular. The star also dates herself by including an extended Zsa Zsa Gabor stint. Who, dahlink? Even the Judy Garland sequence falls slightly flat.
But no matter. Reynolds has always been something of a show-stopping dynamo. Here, at the Carlyle, she out-Mickeys Mickey Rooney. A vaudevillian, absolutely, and pretty much an irresistible baggy-pants comedienne in sequins.