“Old, New, Borrowed and Blue”
Birdland – July 11
A sold-out crowd greeted theatre veteran Julie Halston as she appeared at Birdland for a one-night-only return to one of her early successes: a one-woman comedy show. While she’s best known for her many appearances in Charles Busch’s plays (including a Drama Desk nomination—her third—for The Divine Sister this year), Broadway shows, and television and film work, some of her fans might be surprised to learn that Ms. Halston also made her mark doing one-woman nightclub acts in venues like Eighty-Eight’s a couple of decades or so ago.
For her reappearance, she promised some of her best material from those early days (old), some up-to-date observations (new), a routine by the first “out” comic, Frankie Maya (borrowed), and her first foray into salty language (“blue” material). Despite her self-deprecating remarks about what the aging process has done to her, the comedienne looked stunning in a short black skirt and flashy silver top.
Halston immediately established a comfortable rapport with the audience in her opening comments, as if born to perform without a fourth wall. Before launching into her tried-and-true material, she noted how much she loved Twitter: “It is perfect; you can say whatever you want and never have to deal with another human being.”
A first-rate storyteller, Halston retold some of her classic bits, including her first film experience (The Silence of the Lambs) and an elaborate tale about attending one of Barbra Streisand’s farewell concerts and encountering Richard Simmons, all of which she described as “the gayest moment of my life.” Halston is blessed with a rubbery face that is able to contort into whatever outrage she wants to convey, recalling masters like Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett.
One of the hallmarks of her nightclub acts was her ability to read a seemingly mundane passage from one of a variety of sources and turn it into a comedy goldmine. She did not disappoint this time around, offering us a letter from a disgruntled Long Island housewife to a Broadway producer, haikus about the bad behavior of celebrities, and readings of snooty wedding announcements—this time with a precious gay male couple announcing their nuptials. Best of all was her take on motherhood, a topic that she claimed always interested her. She then read a passage from Nancy Reagan’s memoir, My Turn, about her dealings with daughter Patti. Halston’s soft voice and perfect diction seemed absolutely right for the seldom-heard Reagan, and the text—as Halston noted—made Joan Crawford look pretty good.
Halston closed with a nod to Frankie Maya (he died in 1995 of an AIDS-related illness) and did his routine about a woman promoter who had died outside the Limelight. The rant, which started with the familiar advice to “go on with the show—it’s what she would have wanted,” went to the extreme in the other direction: “When I die, I want everybody to feel sorry for me, and here are the tributes I want!” Funny stuff, but though Halston made a fine effort, it left one wanting to hear the original. She chose to skip the “blue” material, which was perhaps for the best. What works for Halston is that she has tremendous heart, even when she’s making satiric barbs. She does not have an undercurrent of anger that infuses the work of, say, Kathy Griffin or Jackie Hoffman.
It was a treat to catch Julie Halston back on stage by herself. As she inclusively worked all sides of the room with her engaging persona, it felt like a visit from an old friend. One hopes this becomes a regular part of her performing palette once again. Now that she’s demonstrated that she can still do it with ease, one hopes for a show of brand new material in future outings.
About the Author
Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.