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Review - Richard Skipper as Carol Channing in Concert

I imagine Richard Skipper must approach his embodiment of Carol Channing a bit differently than most successful female celebrity impersonators. When doing Barbra or Eartha or Ethel there are certain idiosyncrasies one can latch onto and exaggerate as punch lines. Channing, however, has always presented herself on stage as a sort of self-satire. To broaden up what is already such an extreme can easily slip into vulgar mockery.

But what makes Skipper's performance, one he's been doing for over 20 years, so touching and enjoyable - and sustainable for the 90-minute length of his delightful show, Richard Skipper as Carol Channing in Concert - is that he presents us with a Carol Channing that's toned down to a more personal level. It's all there... the voice that crackles and growls, the innocent eyes that speak the unspoken, the vigorous show-biz strut, the non sequiturs that eventually wind up making perfect sense... but this is more of the Channing we see off-stage or while being interviewed and discussing the subtext of Hello, Dolly!'s title song or explaining the satirical elements of her portrayal of Lorelei Lee.

Thus the show, directed by Mark Robert Gordon, becomes less about Skipper's impersonation and more about admiring the lady he honors. It's no wonder that the Broadway legend herself is one of his biggest fans.

With music director John Fischer leading a three-piece combo, the standards you expect from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! are naturally included (plus Dolly's tender "oak leaf" monologue, serving as a reminder of what an underrated actress Channing is) as well as her big Thoroughly Modern Millie number, "Jazz Baby" and the Ervin Drake novelty song, "Widow's Weeds."

And there are anecdotes about David Merrick and Jerry Herman and Jule Styne, but it's during Skipper's frequent interactions with the audience where he truly gives us a sense of Channing and her genius for sharp-witted eccentricity. Innocuous exchanges with patrons get whipped into gags throughout the evening. At one point a male viewer is invited to come on stage for the star to teach him a little dance for "Bye, Bye, Baby." The night I attended, the gregarious guest wasn't lacking for hamminess and Skipper was generous enough to allow him to steal the moment, just as you might expect Ms. Channing would have been delighted to do. But woe to those who might casually flip through their programs during a performance, as they'll be dealt with firmly, though charmingly.

If I have any reservation, and this is more a matter of personal preference, it's that the stories and songs are all very familiar to anyone with more than a basic knowledge of Carol Channing's Broadway career. Time used for songs introduced by others ("Broadway Baby," "Gee, But It's Good To Be Here") might be more interestingly spent with material from The Vamp or Show Girl. But you can't blame a gal for sticking with the crowd-pleasers, nor can you blame a fella. And pleasing a crowd is something both Ms. Channing and Mr. Skipper know plenty about.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

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