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D’Amboise delights, convulsingly funny bonnets and Smith’s bawdiness

There was no way I was going to miss Charlotte d’Amboise’s final performance in “Sweet Charity” on April 16. As it turned out, there was a bargain, as the box office offered orchestra center fourth row seats for $50.

I have been enslaved by d’Amboise ever since seeing her replace––no, make that efface––Bebe Neuwirth in “Damn Yankees.” When she performed “Whatever Lola Wants,” I could not imagine even the original, Gwen Verdon, being simultaneously so devastatingly sexy and funny. When I arrived at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre for “Charity,” Charlotte’s dancin’ dad, Jacques d’Amboise was out front, the biggest cheerleader in the world, happily greeting fans who remembered him from the film “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

“We all gotta cheer for her!” he said. “But I think Christina [Applegate, the show’s official star, who famously broke her foot on a stage lamppost] is gonna be wonderful, too. And she’s keeping the show alive with her money, so we’re all grateful! [Producer] Barry Weissler told me, ‘Charlotte’s obviously the best one for the role, but we need a star to sell tickets. And not just a movie star, but a TV star, because people know them from coming into your home every night.’”

Since the show hasn’t officially opened, I can only say that, from the momeant d’Amboise made her entrance, radiantly swinging on that lamppost to a thunderous ovation, she was enchantment, itself. She makes a mockery of that hideous theory that you can’t open a show without a star.

The “unknown” but quite incandescent Cheyenne Jackson seems to be doing all right in “All Shook Up,” and Eden Espinoza of “Brooklyn” already has a big cult following. If there were any justice, the name of Stephen Buntrock, who replaced Patrick Wilson in “Oklahoma” and literally revived it, single-handedly, should also be over the title. And, anyway, just who are these “stars” that we can’t seem to live without––Marisa Tomei and Jenna Elfman, two original, and failing, ideas for Charity? Peter Gallagher?

D’Amboise appeared at Broadway Cares’ Easter Bonnet Competition on April 19, where she was sawed in half by magicians, with her top half headed toward “Chicago,” the show she returns to, now that Applegate takes over “Charity.” The competition, in the Art Nouveau splendor of the New Amsterdam Theatre, was show-biz heaven: snappily choreographed and more viciously funny than ten “Forbidden Broadways.”

The cast of “Good Vibrations” poked fun at their bad reviews in the number, “Some Chick in a Bikini and Her Busted Beach Kids.” The gypsies from “Beauty and the Beast,” dressed as kitchen appliances, performed “Hey Big Blender,” making one wonder what the Disney corporation, which produces that show and owns the New Amsterdam, thought about seeing Mickey Mouse, trapped in a blender strapped to the head of a chorus boy.

Easter Bonnet tradition had the amazing 101-year-old Ziegfeld girl, Doris Eaton, dancing with The Cagelles, from “La Cage Aux Folles,” while, from “Urinetown,” Officer Lockstock (Don Richard) and Little Sally (Jennifer Cody) ripped the theater season apart with a barrage of savage jokes: “What is the Japanese touring company of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ called?” “Nip and Tuck.” “Look, here’s a bunch of comp tickets for ‘Brooklyn!’” “Are there any other kind?”

Comic maestro Bruce Vilanch, who I’m sure was responsible for many of these, sat across the aisle from me, twirling a crooked straw and taking it all in with the dead seriousness that good comedy is, in actuality.

“Movin’ Out” and “The Lion King” (particularly gorgeous) went arty, with beautifully choreographed modern dance pieces, but my favorite bit came from Sutton Foster of “Little Women” with her running joke as a “March Girl Gone Wild.” “See what happens when Marmee is away! She puts the ass in Massachuse­tts!” screamed a lecherous announcer, as Foster wrestled to sexily divest herself of corset and crinoline, all the while shrieking, “Fuck, yeah!”

In announcing the winners, Jessica Lange’s legendary humorlessness came to the fore, as she questioned winner categories and commented on “how dumb they think we actors are. Look, they wrote out these dollar amounts as well as the numbers.” “We’re just not used to your Hollywood salaries!” ad-libbed Harvey Fierstein, who brought the house down and ran across the stage high-fiving everyone. “Movin’ Out” won Best Bonnet presentation and “The Phantom of the Opera” was the Broadway Cares fund-raising champ with $209,615.

Younger than springtime, itself, is the sound of Keely Smith, who returned to Feinstein’s at the Regency on April 19, bringing her flawless musicianship and embracing personality. We’re always one big happy Italian family in her deliciously relaxed, bawdy presence, and, with the authority of a showbiz lifetime, she commanded the stage and her magnificent combo, which consisted of the superb Joe Raposo on drums and a horn section headed by Jerry Vivino of The Conan O’Brien Show.

An ebullient Karen Ziemba bounced over to me and said, “I saw you dancing away in your chair to her! I had never seen her before and hope she didn’t take offense by what I told her. I said I’d grown up, listening to my parents play her records.” Not to worry, Keely’s strictly touchy-feely, not touchy, which is why we adore her. Ziemba told me she’ll play Sally in The Barrington Stage Company’s production of “Follies” this summer, with Donna McKechnie and Jeff McCarthy.

Someone remarked upon how they rarely see band members smiling onstage, and Vivino, who always blushes when I tell him how hot he is, blowing away on his sax, said, “That’s because we’re enjoying it as much as you are, playing with someone like Keely. I’m lucky Conan is on hiatus right now, so I could pull these guys together. Anything for her. She is such a performer. She sang this song, ‘Imagination,’ tonight for the first time because a fan had asked her, and when she turned around, there were tears in her eyes.”

Smith told me, “I was so nervous with this new show tonight and know I screwed up three of the songs.” You would never have known this, as singer Jack Donahue once observed to me, “I was watching her singing this heartrending lyric which had everyone sobbing, and she nonchalantly scratched her face in the middle of it.”

Speaking of Donahue, that cutie lights up the stage in “The Audience” (Connelly Theatre). This show has a terrific opening scene, when the stage, consisting of stacked rows of theater seats, breathtakingly fills up with an assortment of every conceivable audience type––noisy old Jewish couples, Japanese tourists with Century 21 bags, secret videotapers and tardy African-Americans, who hilariously sing “We are black people. And we are late. We are late black people.” Jack Cummings’ estimable Transport Group, which is devoted to epic theater like this with its ambitious projects and huge casts, has really outdone itself with this fun lark. And catch Donahue again when he performs with trio at the Algonquin June 14 to 25.

Chita Rivera, Bob Mackie, Karen Akers, Marilyn Maye and John (Lypsinka) Epperson cheered Donna McKechnie at her delightful opening night of “Gypsy in My Soul,” at Le Jazz Au Bar on April 18. McKechnie danced her butt off to “Turkey Lurkey” from “Promises Promises” and her signature “The Music and the Mirror” (“A Chorus Line”). She did a great Ann Miller impersonation from when they co-starred in “Follies” (“They love me, honey!”). But, distractingly, when she sang “A House is Not a Home,” this particular venue certainly sounded like a home, with loudly clattering dishes emanating from the kitchen.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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