BWW Review: ALEXIS MICHELLE SINGS JUDY GARLAND Hits Notes High and Low at Club Cumming
The first thing you notice when you enter Club Cumming is how intimate it is. The quirky, fun, sexy, kitschy club owned by Alan Cumming is an extremely popular nightspot on the lower east side, where something exciting and off-center is happening every night of the week. Filled with a festive and flirty downtown crowd, Club Cumming is always jumping, and Friday night was no exception, as RuPaul's Drag Race star, Alexis Michelle, presented an encore performance of her sold-out World Pride show "Alexis Michelle Sings Judy Garland". The advertising for the show includes the sentence "Far From Impersonation A Loving Tribute", which is an important distinction for a drag artist to make when working with the music and the legacy of the legend that is said to have been the catalyst for The Stonewall Riots. Beloved by all, Judy Garland is a tough act to take on, and Ms. Michelle took her music on, full force, and then some.
Stepping onto the cozy Club Cumming stage, from where she may very well have been able to see every member of the sold-out crowd, Ms. Michelle looked radiant in a stunning brocade pantsuit by Florence D'Lee with matching shoes. Performing as herself and not as Garland, Michelle topped off her look with an enormous orange wig, styled to perfection, rather than one of Garland's signature brunette looks, her flawless face made up to transcendent effect: it cannot be denied that Alexis Michelle is one of the great beauties. For over an hour she sang her own interpretations of some of Judy Garland's most famous hits, as well as songs that had some audience members whispering to their friends "Did Judy Garland sing this?"; and while Miss Garland did, in fact, sing "Suppertime", "What'll I Do" and "Falling in Love With Love", they aren't really Judy Garland songs, and Ms. Michelle's tribute to Judy Garland might have been more complete, had she opted for "Get Happy", "Chicago" or "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart". Garland fans could be satisfied, though, with lively performances of "I Got Rhythm", "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" and "The Trolly Song", or lovely, emotional deliveries of "The Boy Next Door", "Time After Time" and (natch) "Over the Rainbow". A particularly bold choice was to use Garland's arrangement of "The Man that Got Away" but discard the iconic Carnegie Hall arrangement of "Almost Like Being in Love/This Can't Be Love" in favor of one so radically different that Michelle got lost trying to remember the words.
Alexis Michelle has serious vocal skills, learned in a musical theater program at The University of Michigan, where Ms. Michelle studied, a fact that came up repeatedly during her Judy Garland tribute evening, which included little talk of Judy Garland, other than the names of movies from whence cometh the songs being sung, an occasional reference to Stonewall, and appraisals of her beauty and use of her head voice in Meet Me in St. Louis. Indeed, the entertaining evening of Judy Garland songs would be better described as a tribute to Alexis Michelle, rather than one to Judy Garland. An incredibly engaging performer with a natural, off the cuff wit that serves both she and her audience, Ms. Michelle seemed to be presenting neither a drag show, nor a cabaret show - only a show in which a nightclub singer stands center stage sharing incohesive stories about their life in an evening with neither through-line nor purpose. With her personality and vocal chops, Ms. Michelle can get away with this, but it isn't difficult to wonder to what degree this show could be elevated with a framework and a script that provided an evening of theater, rather than a random setlist adorned with unprepared oratory. It is, though, difficult to not adore this gifted artist, especially when she chats lovingly and humorously with her parental units, seated near the stage, proudly beaming at their wildly talented and successful child.
A major portion of the audience was made up of people who know Alexis Michelle in real life, and getting to see her interact with them gave the night a personal feel as she spoke, not only to her family but to college classmates. As the evening progressed and more of her conversation took place between those classmates, a person might have been inclined to feel like a spouse at a college reunion, listening to the alumni reminisce about the good old days, but unable to participate in the party. This prattle may have been easier reined in, had Ms. Michelle not made the unfortunate choice to consume so much alcohol during the show. After forgetting the words to her second number, Ms. Michelle explained she had been working at DragCon all day, and, a frog in her throat, had been advised that whiskey would assist. Admitting she is not a whiskey drinker, she sweetly asked the bar for drinks for herself and her (amazingly talented) musical director Brandon James Gwinn. Throughout the night, Ms. Michelle imbibed a festive amount of Bulleit, and as the evening progressed, more and more lyrics evaded her, a shame because she is so talented, and she had us. We were with her, and we forgave her for the misses, all of which could have been avoided, had she opted for hot water, rather than an alcoholic beverage that, notoriously, dries the membranes in the throat. Everyone at Club Cumming was there because they love Alexis Michelle (this writer included), and it was difficult to watch her struggle, so, with songs that became more difficult as exhaustion and alcohol set in. If only she hadn't made the choices to book a show on a day that she would be working DragCon from 8 am, then order a whiskey, she could have made it on and off the stage with nothing but joy for herself and her audience. After all, Ms. Michelle has everything: she is likable, she is beautiful, and she is talented. She shares a stage with a musician who, one suspects, might be a genius. She could package and market this show, booking dates all around the world, with a little work on her script, as well as better scheduling and libation choices. Fortunately, the Club Cumming audience loved Alexis Michelle enough to let those little bumps in her own brick road slide, making way for her wealth of beauty, personality, and talent, all of which blossom for everyone, on a happy, daily basis.
Follow Alexis Michelle on Twitter and Instagram @Alexislives
Photos by Stephen Mosher