Tammy Grimes @ The Metropolitan Room: Love Her While You May
When the seventy three year old Tammy Grimes first took The Metropolitan Room's stage on opening night of her all-too-brief cabaret engagement (final performance is April 12th) the two-time Tony Award winner seemed genuinely overwhelmed at the enthusiastic welcome she was receiving from the packed house which had just greeted every song of music director/arranger Dennis Buck's piano prelude with hearty applause. The child-like look of wonder in her eyes as she softly enchanted the audience with "Rose of Washington Square" and "Ring Them Bells" may have been hiding a touch of nervousness, but by the time she was called back to "another time, another place, another me," as she used to sing as the ghostly Elvira in High Spirits, those delectably gritty tones of her younger self returned, delivered by a joyful belt, and she, and we, were securely ensconced in "Home Sweet Heaven."
A Broadway regular from the time of her 1959 debut as the title character in Noel Coward's Look After Lulu to her most recent appearance in the 1989 revival of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending, the versatile Ms. Grimes' unmistakable deep murmur of a voice and pin-point timing for high comedy brought an intelligent sexiness to staring roles penned by Moliere and Neil Simon, along with a Tony-winning turn in Coward's Private Lives. A musical theatre performer whose strength lies more in acting and interpreting a lyric than in singing and dancing, she won a Tony as The Unsinkable Molly Brown (both she and Chita Rivera in Bye, Bye, Birdie were placed in the supporting actress category that year) and starred with Jerry Orbach in the original production of 42nd Street.
Her return to the cabaret stage, directed by Joel Vig, is primarily an hour of memories, both personal and professional. Aside from High Spirits winners like "Home Sweet Heaven" and "You Better Love Me While You May," both delivered with sly panache, she marches through her Molly Brown signature tune, "I Ain't Down Yet," still master of the verbal dexterity required for Meredith Willson's lengthy introductory patter. In tribute to her leading man in that show, the great baritone Harve Presnell, and in mocking the changes in her voice the years have brought, she lovingly sings "I'll Never Say No" "in his honor and in his key."
Grimes amuses with a story about showing 42nd Street director/choreographer Gower Champion her limited dancing skills before he staged her "Shadow Waltz" routine, and of her second act number "A Quarter To Nine," she notes, "He didn't bother about choreographing me. He just put me in a wheelchair." Recreating her Off-Broadway performance in Michael Valenti and Edwin Dulchin's Mlle. Colombe, she delivers a deliciously wry 'More Than One Man in Her Life."
In tribute to her deceased husband Richard Jamison Bell, who introduced her to popular music beyond the theatre, she sings Jimmy Buffett's "He Went To Paris," with warmth and affection for what she calls her favorite song ever, after some delightfully animated antics in Oscar Brown, Jr.'s "The Snake." A song you might not expect from Tammy Grimes is Tom Waits' "Martha," sung with a sweet stillness.
Perhaps there were some first night jitters that lead to the occasional forgotten lyrics and pitch problems, but imperfect moments actually gave her better opportunity to shine while laughing at herself. At piano, Buck seemed ready for anything and the two of them worked through imperfections with wit and charm. It seems such a cliché to say so, but Tammy Grimes certainly ain't down yet. Nor do I expect she ever will be.
Photo by Mark Rupp