Duplex – monthly
For some time now, Colleen McHugh has been appearing monthly at the Duplex, each time with a different show and a different theme. How’s that for a daunting self-assignment? The umbrella title for the series is “Calendar Girl”—for obvious reasons. The edition I saw on March 25 was called “Being Green,” and though I went with a bit of trepidation, I was delighted to see that green had nothing whatsoever to do with alternative energy, recycling, inadequate-flush toilets, or any of the other associations the color has had since it was appropriated for a political agenda. Rather, its references were of the old-fashioned variety: things Irish, money, jealousy, plants, frogs, etc. Some of the connections with green were a stretch, but McHugh is such fun, and the show was so jolly, what the hay?
Humor is her through-line, and she seldom passed up an opportunity to make merry. She did an ebullient “Hello Young Lovers” with more than a touch of camp. Afterwards, she commented, “How silly it all is,” showing that she was fully aware of the device, and while her approach may not have served the song ideally, it did become fun—once I’d accepted it on her terms. Her patter, much of it appearing to be off the cuff, was consistently funny and delightful.
A regular feature of her shows is a song she improvises based on an anecdote recounted by a random audience member. I’m usually apprehensive about improvisation, for two reasons: (a) I worry about the quality of random audience participation, and (b) I feel an empathetic concern for the pressure placed on the improviser. On this particular night, my first fear was realized: the chap in the audience thought he was being oh-so-clever and amusing, but he was really a putz, and not only was he annoying, he was also vulgarly graphic. However, McHugh handled the situation with grace and humor, and she allayed my second concern by coming up with a funny piece. I needn’t have worried about this second part, for not only had McHugh studied improvisation at Chicago’s Second City Training Center, she also taught there. She was abetted in this challenging assignment by pianist Chuck Larkin, also from Chicago, who was the evening’s musical director.
She also scores when she resists the temptation to be funny. Her handling of “Somewhere That’s Green” (Howard Ashman, Alan Menken) was quite sweet, Joe Raposo’s Kermit classic, “Bein’ Green,” was dear, and “Danny Boy” (Frederick Edward Weatherly) was truly lovely and affecting. She delivered Randy Newman’s “When She Loved Me” with heartfelt simplicity, and her bouncy, swinging rendition of “The Green Grass Starts to Grow” (Hal David, Burt Bacharach) was as sunny as the imagery in the song’s chorus.
McHugh’s guest this evening was Klea Blackhurst, who treated us to a robust performance of Irving Berlin’s “Can You Use Any Money Today?” Written sixty years ago, the song’s funny but pointed allusions to the U.S. government’s profligate doling out of money expropriated from the people who earned it is, alas, all too timely. For the few minutes that McHugh and Blackhurst were on stage together, we had before us at the same time two of the brightest, sharpest, and funniest entertainers in New York.
Because McHugh is always doing new material, it is inevitable that not everything will work or be ready for prime time—but her personality and talent are strong enough to compensate—or at least come damned close. For example, though her interpretation of “Hey! Jealous Lover” (Sammy Cahn, Kay Twomey, Bee Walker) was, not special, her presence and energy were. A country music-flavored “Evergreen” (Paul Williams, Barbra Streisand) was a touch peculiar and not quite thought through, but her spirit carried the day. It’s rather like being a guest at her salon—an informal affair in which the pleasure of her company is what you’ll remember most vividly afterwards.
Her show on April 15 will be “Spring Forward,” and on May 21 it’s “Nailing the Carpenters.” There are occasional repeats; for example, on June 10 she’s bringing back “Friend of Dorothy,” her tribute to Judy Garland, and the Styne/Comden & Green standard “Just in Time” has shown up in several of her shows. Maybe we can get her to repeat “Prêt à Porter,” an evening commemorating Cole Porter’s French connections. (Isn’t that an adorable title?) I saw it in 2008; it’s pretty wonderful.
About the Author
Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.