by Ron Fassler
Of the legendary musical theatre actors who made their New York stage debuts as far back as nearly sixty years ago, we must be grateful that Anita Gillette is not only one of the most enduring, but still going as strong as ever. Beginning as a replacement Hollywood Blonde in the original production of Gypsy with Ethel Merman, this Tony nominated actress shows little effects of the passage of time. Her radiant face still shines bright, and her supple and expressive voice remains passionate and assured. Taking to Birdland’s stage last night, in a show highlighting her relationship with the great Irving Berlin (who cast her in his last Broadway musical, 1962’s Mr. President), Gillette’s personal connection to one of America’s finest composer and lyricists, makes for an historical evening of story and song, as well as a delightful one.
Anita Gillette launched what became an instantly successful career as an ingénue in 1960, when she won a Theatre World Award for an off-Broadway revue titled Russell Patterson’s Sketchbook. Before the decade would finish, she would appear in a total of eight Broadway musicals, as well as Woody Allen’s hit comedy Don’t Drink the Water. And even if one of those shows, the famous flop musical Kelly, opened and closed in one night, it still made her an incredibly busy and in-demand actress. Her Tony nomination came for creating the role of Jennie in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, which helped to get her cast a short time later as one of the Sonia’s in his They’re Playing Our Song. She was ubiquitous on TV in the 1980s and ‘90s, and was among the all-star cast of the Academy Award winning comedy Moonstruck.
“Me and Mr. B.” is Gillette’s affectionate salute to the composer-lyricist, that begins at the time she befriended him during Mr. President, and ends with his death at age 101. They stayed connected for some 27 years, which allows for Gillette to tell some charming stories, which the audience I saw it with on Wednesday night, could not get enough. It also gives her the chance to sing songs of every type from the pen of the versatile Berlin (1,499 was the final number attributed to him). There were famous ones and not-so-famous ones, and I was particularly taken with one I was unfamiliar with “Lazy,” (written in 1924), which exhibited Berlin’s playful and clever rhyming skills, i.e. “a great big valise full of books to read where it’s peaceful.”
The support from the band made for some strong backup, particularly the special guest appearance of acclaimed jazz trombonist David L. Harris, who flew in from New Orleans to accompany Gillette on “Mister Monotony” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The fine musical direction was by Paul Greenwood, who played piano, with Dan Gross (drums) and Tom Hubbard (bass), which made for an excellent musical trio.
For Anita Gillette, age is only a number—the same for which can be said of Penny Fuller, Gillette’s “Sin Twister” (as they have named their duel act that I’ve seen and enjoyed more than once), and contemporary on the Broadway stage. Both came up at just about the same time and even shared a role or two (they both played in the original Cabaret as Sally Bowles). Late in the evening, Gillette brought Fuller on to the stage to perform a not very well-known number, “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” from Berlin’s Music Box Revue of 1922. They brought down the house.
Closing with a song written by Berlin in the year of her birth, Gillette sang “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (composed in 1936). That brought a tear or two to some in the audience, only to be topped when she blended it into another Berlin song, so well known, that everyone in the room started singing along.
It’s that kind of night at Birdland when Anita Gillette takes on Irving Berlin.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto
Me & Mr. B: Anita Gillette
Final performances October 5th and 6th.