June 19th was an inexplicably chilly evening at Ravinia, and many concert-goers were surely grateful that Alan Cumming would perform in the intimate Martin Theater, with apologies to the picnickers outside. In fact, when the night’s star heard that the lawn audiences would be eating throughout the performance, he likened them to zombies that would devour the indoor audience as soon as they emerged. He even scampered over to both side doors, flung them open to say hello, then shut them immediately for comic fear of imminent brain-eating. Such was the nature of the veteran performer’s spirit throughout the 90-minute journey: spritely, witty, and honest.
That honesty would seep into every part of the evening’s magic. Mr. Cumming gave the audience humorous insight to his whirlwind showbiz life, blunt reports on his troubled family history, and most of all, completely open and vulnerable renditions of emotionally-charged songs. His accompanists, Lance Horne on the piano and backup vocals and Eleanor Norton on the cello, while fabulously talented themselves, seemed to fade into the background behind the passions laid bare at center stage. He utilized his body in a way that was meant to display feeling, but never felt staged or rehearsed.
Mr. Cumming started off with “Why” by Annie Lennox, and continued to defy his musical theatre “type” from there. Notable deviances included a medley that merged Adele with Lady Gaga with Katy Perry, a snappy jingle he sang for a Trojan condom commercial, as well as a folk tune from his native Scotland. (The explanation of local colloquialisms in the lyrics was very helpful!) No subject was off-limits, from the Vietnam War and PTSD, to his childhood with his abusive father, to a short but tumultuous romance that left him to remove an unfortunate tattoo. However, he eventually landed on tradition, ending with Sondheim’s “Ladies Who Lunch” during the encore, complete with martini in hand.
In the end, the candid yet lighthearted night left the audience feeling like they knew the Tony Award-winner on a personal level. He faced down a difficult past with a wink and an impish smile. May we all conquer adversity in such a way with a song in our hearts.
Reviewed by Katherine Damisch