4. Review of THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND ME (May 9, 2013)
What an educational week of musical theatre this has been! Two nights after visiting Mark Nadler’s one-man revue cum musical history lesson at the York, I’M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF, I ran into a very similar show at 59E59, Neil Bartlett and Jessica Walkers’s THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND ME, a one-woman revue performed by coauthor Jessica Walker, with piano accompaniment by Joe Atkins. Whereas Nadler’s revue was focused on the Jewish-originated music of the Weimar Republic and its lingering aftereffects on American culture, THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND ME taught me about the history of a half-dozen British and American female performers who built substantial careers as male impersonators.
Ms. Walker, a slim, petite blonde, with delicate features and a boyish haircut, wears white tie and tails to take us through her biographical introduction to the backgrounds and songs of Vesta Tilley (the most famous name), Hetty King, Annie Hindle, Ella Wesner, Ella Shields, and Gladys Bentley. She sings in a pure soprano, altering her tone for different songs and periods, but always keeps to something that sounds very much like what audiences must have heard when the songs were current. In other words, the arrangements and Ms. Walker’s interpretations seem close to the originals, but she nevertheless invests each number with deep feeling and intelligence. Ms. Walker talks of male impersonators who were so much like men that audiences were confused about their true identities. The goal, she says, was illusion. But in her own case, there is no illusion at all. She is a makeup-wearing woman dressed in man’s clothes, and there is no ambiguity at all about her gender.
The ambiance in the tiny Theatre C on the third floor differs markedly from that at the York. The audience sits at small cabaret tables facing a postage stamp-size platform with a piano, a hat rack filled with different hats that come into use in the performance, and a half-curtain that, when opened, displays the words of an old song, “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” which the audience is asked to join in for a sing-along. By the way, this is not the popular song of the same title that goes, “Down by the old mill stream, where I first met you.” The tune and lyrics are quite different, except for the line “down by the old mill stream.” The sixteen songs in the show, the oldest from as early as the 1870s, and the youngest from 1924, include such long-forgotten tunes as “I’m the Idol of the Girls,” “I Love the Ladies,” “Angels without Wings,” “Don’t Put Your Foot on a Man When He’s Down,” “I’ve Got the Time, I’ve Got the Place,” and the song that gives the show its title. More familiar are “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” (1919) and that gay 90s blockbuster “After the Ball” (1892). There are also two operatic arias, one from Mozart’s MARRIAGE OF FIGARO sung by Cherubino, the other from Strauss’s DER ROSENKAVALIER sung by Octavian. The arias aside, I wonder whether everyone will appreciate a single soprano singing so many of these dated ditties, some of which begin to blend into each other as the show progresses.
I found Ms. Walker far more congenial company than Mr. Nadler because she performs with much greater ease and comfort and never seems to be straining. On the other hand, the show, even at 70 minutes (without an intermission), does eventually flirt with boredom. There are a few innuendo-laden chuckles embedded in the fairly extensive narrative patter, as might be expected from a show focused on cross-dressing women, but the effect is of rather straightforward history, lightened by the musical underscoring and the many songs yet never quite losing its mildly didactic tone.
A side note: yesterday when I participated in the reception for Drama Desk Awards nominees at the JW Marriott Essex House, I met and chatted with many of the nominees. One of them was Tim Minchin, the British-born, Australian-raised writer of the music and lyrics for Broadway’s newest blockbuster, MATILDA. Tim was at 59E59 tonight, seeing BULL, and it was fun to run into him again so soon after just having met him. At 37, this guy, who is also a performer, has a phenomenal career ahead of him. And he seems to be a pretty decent bloke to boot.