We knew him as Eli Gould from The Good Wife. Then in 2015 we heard his interview with Margaret Throsby for the Sydney Writers Festival. On Tuesday night we saw Alan Cumming in his cabaret show Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, in Perth for the first time.
He opened the show with Eurythmics’ Tell Me Why and Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know, before pausing to introduce himself, his sappy songs and to suggest getting a hanky ready. He was joined onstage by his Emmy winning musical director, pianist and sometime collaborator, Lance Horne, cellist Eleanor Norton and drummer Chris Jego.
Alan Cumming has a tattoo on his arm saying: “Only connect”. A famous quote from E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, expressing Margaret’s longing for people to reach out and truly communicate with each other, it has become his mantra as a performer. In his cabaret show he does just that, delivering a magical evening with an eclectic mix of songs, hilariously naughty stories of real-life adventures and misadventures 🙂 and deeply revealing stories of family traumas addressed with warmth and insight. When it comes to tattoos, Cumming used to have another one, the story of which makes for a hysterically funny anecdote – just one of many in the show.
Radiating oodles of charm, with a twinkle in the eye that lights up the stage, Cumming is a natural showman and a consummate storyteller. Marrying a flirty-dirty sense of humour, a camp sensibility, an unashamed sentimentality and a raw emotional honesty, he has you laughing one minute and wiping a tear away the next – the perfect combo for a seductively entertaining cabaret show.
Alan Cumming has performed Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs in Australia before, to tears and standing ovations on the east coast. Though essentially the same, the show has changed a little since then. At one point, he reads a poem about Trump by Stephen Siddall, English scholar, writer and director, written in the style of Robert Burns, which begins “You eunuch of thought” and gets progressively more colourful from there. In the US the odd person has booed, Cumming told us. With an eloquently raised eyebrow, he expressed amazement that a Trump supporter would have come to see him in the first place (Cumming makes no bones about his political persuasion) before adding a tongue-in-cheek but lethal take-down. No boos in Australia, just unanimous cheering from the audience. And to keep things topical, there was a quick jab at Margaret Court as well.
The music ranged freely taking in everything from Avril Lavigne’s Complicated to a Scottish ode called Mother Glasgow, a snarling rendition of Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling from The Threepenny Opera, an Adele/Lady Gaga/Katy Perry mash-up and even a perky little jingle Ecstasy he and Lance Horne co-wrote for a condom commercial. Miley Cyrus’s The Climb elicited a few giggles from the audience, but these quickly subsided as Cumming made the song his own. With a new arrangement by Horne, and Cumming’s gentle Scottish burr, it was as if we were hearing the song afresh. Musical theatre fans whooped and cheered at a cheeky Sondheim medley, with which Cumming illustrated his argument that the revered composer/lyricist keeps recycling the same tune. Sondheim, he tells us, didn’t take offense and, to his surprise, gave him permission to include it on a recording of the show. No matter what he’s singing, Alan Cumming connects so intensely with the lyric that he finds the emotional heart of the song and draws you into his interpretation.
His stories covered plenty of emotional ground from his moving account of the discovery of his grandfather’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to a deliciously funny tale about Liza Minnelli. Unleashing his Eli Gold accent at one point when discussing The Good Wife, he sent people into paroxysms of delight. At the other end of the spectrum, after talking about his father’s violent, abusive nature, he launched into a blistering rendition of Dinner at Eight by Rufus Wainwright (who also had a difficult relationship with his father), which left Cumming himself teary – and he wasn’t alone.
After an amusing riff about encores, he ended the show with Noël Coward’s wistful If Love Were All and Sondheim’s acerbic The Ladies Who Lunch. By the end of the evening we felt that he’d shared enough of himself to have given us an insight into what makes him tick, and a taste of what it would be like to be a friend of his. Most people were probably wishing they could hang out with him in his dressing room club, Club Cumming – which, as he explained, was where the idea for this show began.
Alan Cumming received a 2016 Helpmann Award nomination for Best Cabaret Performer for Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs.