A Broadway veteran makes a delightful return to a New York stage
By Joel Benjamin
There has to be some reason that theater veterans (Phyllis Newman, Tony Roberts, Marilyn Maye, Leroy Reams, Marin Mazzie) and eager fans packed Feinstein’s/54 Below to the rafters for Nancy Dussault’s My Life Upon the Wicked Stage. The reason was abundantly clear when this energetic eighty-year-old stepped onto the stage—her signature red bob shining under the colored lights, her voice still vibrant and expressive—and sang “Cockeyed Optimist” (Rodgers/Hammerstein), a song which pretty much defined this delightful musical comedy diva.
The act focused on her colorful theatrical career. Her vocal talents were apparent early, her training supported by her family. After college, lucky breaks led her to a run of Broadway shows which included The Sound of Music, Do Re Mi and Bajour.
From the latter she re-created her signature number, “Where Is the Tribe for Me?” (Walter Marks) in which her anthropologist character seeks a “tribe” to study á la Margaret Mead. The years dropped away as Miss Dussault bounded about the stage spouting scientific jargon and hilariously repeating, “Searching, searching.”
One song stood out, a number she commissioned from legendary Billy Barnes. Barnes took Miss Dussault’s early home life and turned it into “Captain’s Daughter,” which related her relationship to her dad, whose Naval service entailed much moving around. Barnes managed to turn her life into poetry.
She also sang some Sondheim, starting with “Not Getting Married Today,” combined deliciously with “Get Me to the Church on Time” (Loewe/Lerner). Her “Stay With Me,” from Into the Woods was directed to Ms. Mazzie who played her daughter in that show, giving it a lovely resonance.
In a medley of more than twenty (!) songs she raced through “The Sound of Music,” “Shall We Dance,” “Ten Minutes Ago” (all by Rodgers/Hammerstein), “Three Little Maids” (Gilbert & Sullivan), “Almost Like Being in Love” (Loewe/Lerner) and “C’Est Magnifique” (Porter), amongst other, somehow giving each its due.
“Old Friend” (Nancy Ford/Gretchen Cryer) took on inadvertent depth. This quiet, thoughtful meditation on friendship was heart-breaking.
She sang “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” (Kern/Hammerstein) three times, the first time straight, milking it for all its dated humor then in updated versions—one by her pal, David Garrison—tweaking today’s theater scene.
From Do Re Mi (Styne/Comden/Green), “Make Someone Happy,” the big hit that she introduced, was the apt finale. The fact that Adolph Green’s widow was in the house added to the poignancy. Tears and smiles mingled along with a well-deserved standing ovation.
With her brilliant musical director, Christopher Marlowe, Miss Dussault fashioned a show that was close to perfect in its balance of humor, warmth, nostalgia and theater lore.
Nancy Dussault: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage (September 27, 2016)
254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue
New York, NY
For reservations, call 646-476-3551 or visit www.54below.com
Running time: 90 minutes
Photos: Maryann Lopinto