Why Is Everyone Laughing? Because Hanna Burke is Divine as Madeline Kahn!
by Lisa Reitman Dobi
Every year, Winter Rhythms presents a series of performances selected to brighten up the dark, cold days. One of the brightest lights in this year’s program is Hanna Burke’s tribute to Madeline Kahn. “Why Is Everyone Laughing?” is absolutely spectacular. With astounding skill, Burke brings to life that legendary voice with glorious, spot-on precision.
Burke’s performance captures everything but the red hair: Kahn’s singularly mellifluous intonation, rich with nuance and signature inflection, her wry edginess, impeccable timing, it’s all there. Weaving together anecdotes and songs, Burke takes the audience on a vivid sortie filled with sparkling glimpses of Kahn’s early years, her first encounters with Peter Bogdonovitch, Mel Brooks, Lucille Ball, her rapport with Gene Wilder, her frank reaction to Danny Kaye, a dozen memorable touchstones.
A wonderful storyteller, Burke is hilarious, sensitive and polished. In a set that lasted under 90 minutes, she incorporated at least 10 songs, all of them highlighting pivotal moments in Kahn’s career. Fans of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein are in for a real treat when Burke channels Kahn in “I’m Tired” and “You’d Be Surprised.” Every song showcased the winning combination of Burke’s stunning voice combined with her precision in all that is Madeline Kahn. The show is a rich spread of details and insights into Kahn’s life, animated and fascinating. The songs are beautifully selected hallmarks of Kahn’s roles but, moreover, chosen to communicate the interesting, hilarious and often complex aspects of her life. “Not Getting Married” is a triumph of speed, wit and musicality. “How Long Has This Been Going On” pulls at one’s heartstrings.
On several occasions, including “I’m Not Getting Married,” Burke was superbly accompanied by Rachel Joyce, Will Anderson and Adrian Rifat. Both excellent singers, Anderson and Rifat danced with a lightness that belied the small stage. Joyce is funny, a born comedienne. Combine that with a crystalline voice that brought to mind the soaring purity of a soloist in a cathedral. To say she is quite something is the definition of understatement.
Why Is Everyone Laughing is a thrilling result of talent and synchronicity: Hanna Burke’s passionate development of her Madeline Kahn, Joseph Macchia’s Gone Too Soon: A Tribute to Madeline Kahn, and the release of author William V. Madison’s thoroughly engaging biography, Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life. Madison hosted Joseph Macchia’s at the Metropolitan Room, where Burke happened to be working as she developed her Kahn show. Burke’s knockout performance of “I’m Tired” from Blazing Saddles caught the cabaret world’s attention. Within the year, Burke garnered the MAC nomination for Best New York Debut as well as a nomination for Broadway World Best Debut Show.
Musical Director Jeff Cubeta on piano is a thrill to watch. Billy Smolen is terrific on bass: smooth and lush. Simon Fishburn is finesse itself on drums and percussion. Arrangements by Cubeta are rich and true. The band and Burke have a playful rapport, great fun for the audience.
Burke and Madison’s collaboration has yielded tremendous results. Why Is Everyone Laughing? has one significant flaw, one that has a remedy: it’s too wonderful to keep at 90 minutes. Make it bigger! Burke’s sublime talent will carry this show a long, long way.
Don’t miss Hanna Burke in Why Is Everyone Laughing? A Tribute to Madeline Kahn
Photos: Maryann Lopinto