BWW Review: Cady Huffman Rejects All Labels with Humor and Sincerity Alike in TOMBOY, SHOW GIRL at Feinstein's/54 Below
They say you only have one shot at a first impression, but in her Feinstein's/54 Below debut, Cady Huffman started her show twice. The double-take beginning was not attributed to a mistake or a technical difficulty; to the contrary, Tony Award-winning Huffman (THE PRODUCERS) was very intentional in her duality, indecisive to which of her entrances she preferred.
It is only fitting that Huffman began the evening with such a duplicitous start, as notions of the disparate pierced through much of her show, TOMBOY, SHOW GIRL. As that title suggests, through the 85-minute set, Huffman explored the binary of gender roles, particularly in show business. However, she also touched upon the juxtapositions of youth and experience, comedy and poignancy, weariness and the still-genuine love of show business she's maintained through decades of slogging through it.
In her cunning song selections, she was able to examine with introspective and you-gotta-laugh clarity the confluence of where each of these facets of her life and career now meet, more than 15 years after her Tony win and more than 30 after her Broadway debut.
Back to that beginning, though, Huffman's eccentricity was showcased right off the bat. After all, how many other Tony Award-winning leading ladies would kick off their set with a theatrical interpretation of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back"? In case some in the audience were less partial to that song of bodacious celebration, though, Huffman's second entrance was "Willamania" from THE Will Rogers FOLLIES (a show which earned her the first of her Tony nominations). And, to be clear, she really did reemerge anew, complete with a second introduction and an outfit change.
The two songs, starkly contrasting in their style, lyricism, and subject (a Broadway standard versus a song about "big butts") was the first pair of tunes intent to elude any sort of classification of Huffman as a performer, of course, but also as a woman. She would continue to challenge preconceived categorizations throughout the evening, sometimes to a nearly heavy-handed extent, with certain songs seemingly selected for their cheekiness above all else.
I do say "nearly" though because, through her honed bawdiness, Huffman never once lost grip of her audience. Take, for example, her sequential singing of Jerry Herman's "Moon Song" from MAME and "You are My Sunshine," the nursery song which she directed as a sing-along. Antithetical in their literal themes of light and dark, obviously, but they also put on display Huffman's leading-lady soprano in the former, and her ability to instantaneously channel that brassiness into an inviting benevolence in the latter.
That razor-sharp contrast held true for another coupling of songs: "Maria" from WEST SIDE STORY (Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein), a musical that in many ways represents the era of yesteryear's "golden age of theatre," and an original tune, "Leggo My Ego," which Huffman wrote and performed with Kenyon Phillips, a decidedly downtown artist who refers to Huffman as his "spirit mom." The tune about "not fitting in and maybe not being gender specific," as Phillips explained, once again showed off the oozing center at which Huffman's maternal affection meets her not-for-children sensibilities. With hints of electronic and alternative pop, the song's lyrics included a refrain of, "When I was a little girl/I told the world that I was not a little boy."
Huffman has embraced that notion of androgyny throughout most of her career; she's had to. She's been perpetually presumed a lesbian in her decades of performing because she's, well, tall. That may not have been an intended segue into one of her songs, "Ring of Keys," from the 2014 Tony Award-wining Best Musical FUN HOME, but the number, a moment of queer reckoning by a young girl who sees something recognizable within a delivery woman, was uncanny in the themes which Huffman's show seemed based upon: acceptance of the different and an awareness that face value is not worth as much as what's underneath.
Huffman closed her show with a song exemplifying the deconstruction of gender norms, perhaps more than she even intended: "You'll Be Back," which King George sings about his scorned lover, America, in HAMILTON. Likely due to its revolutionary and racially transcendent casting, the subject of gender-challenged roles in the smash-hit musical has been oft-discussed but not yet executed, and Huffman certainly made the case for herself as the first female king to assume George's throne.
Through her eclectic and variant song selections, Huffman was supported throughout the evening by topnotch talent including Heather Curran, a vocalist who joined her on a couple of the evening's songs, as well as Roger Cohen on drums and musical director Eugene Gwozdz on piano.
Though entirely approachable in her onstage demeanor, audiences lest forget that Huffman is a showbiz veteran who has seen some things and has some stories, which is how she concluded her rambunctious show. Intermingled with "Take My Breath Away," the Giorgio Moroder/Tom Whitlock tune made iconic by its presence in the 1972 film TOP GUN, Huffman described "the most exciting night of [her] life." Having been invited to attend the movie's premiere, she and the film's star, an actor named Tom Cruise, spent the evening together afterwards, eating eggs and riding around on his motorcycle. As the sun came up, he zipped her home to her apartment on the Upper West Side and leaned in for a kiss. Huffman, just 21 at the time, turned her cheek.
"I turned my face to be kissed on the cheek by the hottest young movie star in the world, on the morning after one of the biggest movie premieres in history," Huffman lamented in hindsight. Surely a million girls would have killed for the opportunity which she passed up all those years ago but, as made evident by her performance on this night alone, Huffman is, unequivocally, one in a million.