BWW Review: Anita Gillette Stands Tall in CHAPTER 3! at Birdland
There is a trend in show business, one that all have been aware of for some time but one that is, hopefully, changing as more people place a focus on making it change: that trend is the general lack of work for women of, shall we say, an advanced glamour. Great actresses reach a certain age and find that there are fewer roles for them, fewer doors open to them and fewer opportunities for them - a crying shame because these great artists have gifts to share, stories to tell, talents to behold.
Fortunately, the cabaret nightclubs of the world love glamour, advanced or otherwise, and the audiences who frequent these venues flock to these divas, goddesses, and beacons of light to bask in the glory of their talent, their beauty, and their history. In these last few months, alone, the cabaret and concert stages of New York have welcomed Lucie Arnaz, Lynda Carter, Donna McKechnie, Vivian Reed and Chita Rivera for sold-out shows.
This month Anita Gillette joined the prestigious list of women who have something to say, and who are saying it to those sold-out rooms in the clubs of New York City.
A veteran cabaret performer with several shows under her belt (and a couple of MAC awards, as well), Ms. Gillette opened her new show, CHAPTER 3!, in the main room at Birdland. When Gillette and her posse (director Barry Kleinbort and musical director Paul Greenwood) create a new show for her, the evenings are centered around a life in show business that has seen an actress go from ingenue (Carnival) to sex bomb (Cabaret), from kook (They're Playing Our Song) to matriarch (Show Boat). Audiences can always count on anecdotes about the legends with whom this legend in her own right has worked, people like David Merrick, Ethel Merman, and Irving Berlin, and they can always count on the stories being masterfully (or MISTRESSfully) told by a world-class raconteur who knows where the punchline is, and where the teardrop belongs. Anita Gillette simply knows how to deliver, and her Birdland audiences are always there, captivated like children sitting at the feet of their favorite mother, grandmother or school teacher, taking in every blissful word.
CHAPTER 3! is a spin on Gillette's Tony Award-nominated performance in the Neil Simon play Chapter Two, but it is also a big nod to the fact that she is in her third act of life. She doesn't hide her age, she brings it right into the living room, sits it down, and owns it. She sometimes tells the year that something happened to her, she will openly refer to people in her life who have, long, been gone, and this time around she tells her audience that she has a new great-granddaughter. Anita's not afraid to tell her age because she looks so damn good. With a lively step and a lot of physical movement carrying her around the stage, Ms. Gillette wears shape-hugging black slacks and sweater, with a beaded leopard jacket and big gold jewelry, a sex kitten if there ever was one, her signature flame-colored hair catching the light of Birdland's brilliant lighting designers, at every turn. Many times in the evening she purrs, slinks and suggests like Mae West, letting you know that she once was, is today, and always will be a sexual creature - that her status as a soprano ingenue sweetheart was only a part of who she is -- that the other parts of her are extremely womanly.
And speaking of her role in musical theater, the role of soprano - the notes are still there. Ms. Gillette's loveliest moments on the Birdland stage were ones where she sat in a pin spot, with quiet and simple ease, releasing notes of such sweetness, notes filled with tender emotions, sweetness and tenderness to make you close your eyes and sit, smiling, as the joy of absolute beauty washes over you. In Gillette's more than capable care, "It Never Was You" is absolute sublime perfection, and her performance of "Never Go There Anymore" from KELLY is as gorgeous a musical moment as is likely to be found in any nightclub around the world. These songs from one of Broadway's great sopranos are a perfect juxtaposition to some rollicking comedy numbers that come complete with rubber facial expressions and hilarious vocal impressions.
It isn't only the high notes that are still there, though. In an extremely human and enjoyable accident last night, Ms. Gillette decided to go up instead of down, and musical director supreme, Paul Greenwood, stopped the song "Teach Me Tonight" to remind Anita that they had decided to take the keys down. Laughing, this year's Emmy nominee for After Forever told the audience it is always her natural inclination to go soprano, before adjusting the keys in her head, after which they started the number again to reveal some sexy, sultry low notes that gave Anita Gillette an opportunity to seduce everyone, the way Dr. Gillette seduced her during her days as a medical stenographer. Watching these two musical proficients work it out before our very eyes was a thrilling peek into what it is like to be the kind of artist that many of us wish that we were... if only we had the craft that Gillette and Greenwood (and bassist Ritt Henn) have, especially on numbers like the more than suggestive "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl."
CHAPTER 3! borrows from Anita Gillette's shows AFTER ALL and SO AS I WAS SAYING, giving audiences a chance to relive some of their favorite moments from therein, but there is much new material, especially when it comes to the storytelling - and it is in these stories where we really meet Anita Gillette. With all the hilarity of her comedy numbers, the wistfulness of the ballads, and the sexiness of the torch songs, Anita sets aside her script and shares the stories of finding love a second time, and the enormous gift of charity that famed, shamed producer Garth Drabinsky did for her when her true love in life came down with a catastrophic cancer diagnosis -- these are the moments when we see beyond the Star, behind the Legend, and into the heart of The Woman.
And Anita Gillette is all woman, among many other admirable attributes, not the least of which is Great American Actress - and thank heaven for the stages at Birdland and Crazy Coqs, London (where Gillette next appears on October 20th) for giving great actresses like Gillette and others a chance to continue to shine, to share, to flourish for audiences and fans who adore them and who wish to continue to to hear what they have to say and sing, because at the end of the day there is no getting around this one simple truth:
Anita Gillette is not just a Woman For All Ages - she is a Star For All Time.
Photos by Stephen Mosher