Hearing From Huckleberry Friends

Donahue delights; a cagelle tell-all; Dana Reeve’s wonders; doyennes of design

Jack Donahue is singing in the Algonquin’s Oak Room through June 25, and I urge you to catch the finest male purveyor of cabaret today. Last Tuesday evening, with his opening number “Nature Boy,” he thoroughly seduced a frankly adoring crowd, including Dominick Dunne, with his dulcet tenor and dark good looks. A while back, I’d asked him if he was singing my favorite, Suzanne Vega’s “Caramel,” and he said probably not, as it wouldn’t be the same without the female chorus that’s on his CD, “Strange Weather.”

But, to my––and everyone else’s––joy, he did sing it, smartly using an accordionist to hauntingly accent the song, along with a lovely, if somewhat veiled, dedication à moi. (Thanks, Jack!) Why this isn’t a huge hit and Donahue not an even bigger star is one of life’s mysteries to me.

A highlight of Broadway By the Year: 1962 at Town Hall on June 13 was “Everybody Ought to Have Maid,” staged by the very talented Bryan Batt, sung by Brad Oscar, Scott Coulter and Danny Gurwin, and featuring two cagelles, from “La Cage aux Folles,” Will Taylor and Eric Stretch, in fetching Brad Musgrove-designed maid’s outfits. I spoke with Taylor, who is positively glorified in “La Cage” as the most convincingly fatale of all those long-stemmed femmes.

“Jerry Mitchell”—the choreographer—“told me to think of Paris Hilton,” he said. “And then when I put the wig on, it was instant Nicole Kidman. I had never really done drag before, apart from Halloween, but Jerry’s so great to work with, so generous. Luckily, in this number at Town Hall tonight, we didn’t have to worry about tucking anything, as Brad’s dresses were just long enough to cover us up.”

You have only a few days to catch Taylor before his Broadway run ends on June 26.

Earlier this month, Christopher Reeve’s widow, Dana, performed a deeply moving two-night set at Feinstein’s at the Regency. Mrs. Reeve genuinely touched hearts, showing us the compassionate spouse who stood by her husband for years after his tragic accident. Relying on the great American songbook to tell her story, it was amazing Dana Reeve made these standards so deeply relevant.

In a re-written version of Sondheim’s “Another 100 People,” Reeve described how her once-quiet home became a haven for strangers after Christopher’s paralyzing accident. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” became an ode to her newborn baby, Will, and, most devastatingly, a gorgeous reading of “It Never Entered My Mind” addressed her life as a widow.

Dana’s late husband Christopher has been on a lot of minds lately. Rosie O’Donnell, from the admittedly safe perch of ABC’s “The View,” assailed right-wing pundit Sean Hannity about stem cell research, saying that the paralyzed Reeve died without seeing a research break-through because of Pres, George W. Bush’s veto of federal funding.

O’Donnell was in fine, fiery form, but why did ABC choose to cut short the program just as she was giving out her e-mail address for folks to contact her?

At “Designing Hollywood,” New York Women in Film and Television’s gala at Sotheby’s on June 13, make-up artist Carla White, an honoree, spoke about how she did Reeve’s makeup in his final years.

“He was an incredibly vital, energetic, busy person, and then to have all that physical limitation put upon him. He suffered from alopecia, which caused all of his hair to fall out,” White said, “but he still wanted to have eyelashes and eyebrows. I had to glue them on hair by hair, and it was a challenge to get them to match up perfectly. It became an obsession and I never felt like I totally nailed it, and then he died.”

Chris Noth, Stockard Channing and Cynthia Nixon laughed as an ebullient S. Epatha Merkerson, star of “ Law and Order,” gave White her award, saying that hair and makeup artists, as well as costume designers, deserved to get honorary degrees in psychology because of the many caring ways they help actors.

Honoree costume designer, Julie Weiss, was particularly amusing, with her wide-ranging, brilliant musings on her profession: “It’s always a problem, like tonight––should I buckle my new Marc Jacobs shoe or take that time to remove the mark-down sticker?”

An exhibit highlighting the work of the honorees White, Weiss and costumer Hope Hanafin featured a fascinating preliminary sketch Weiss did for Bette Davis in “The Whales of August,” a very different, almost Blanche Dubois take on the character from that which ended up on film.

“Bette Davis called me,” Weiss recalled, “and said she was playing Lillian Gish’s sister, and would I be interested in doing her costumes? She then hung up on me. She would finish what she was saying and hang up and I would have to call her back. I said to her, ‘If I’m on the right track here, between aesthetic and practical, don’t say anything and we’ll keep going. You’re playing a woman who’s lost her sight, and, by chance, you’ve had a very rough year––breast cancer, a terrible book written about you by your daughter, you have fallen. You want to make your performance an extraordinary one. If, by any chance, you think by having you look messy, people are going to think that’s who you are right now, we don’t have to soil your clothes and put black glasses on you and give you a cane. We can go the practical way and have every piece of clothing simply lined up in your closet with every single shoe, and all you have to do is walk over as your character and get them.’ And Miss Davis looked at me and said, ‘And what color would the first dress be?’ She was a big influence on me, taught me about elegance, storytelling and the responsibility that we have to allow people to act until their last day.”

Jane Alexander evoked another show biz legend, Irene Sharaff, who designed her first film, “The Great White Hope.” “She was extraordinary. She had an enormous budget, of course, because that was the day when they could do that,” Alexander recounted. “I had about 14 different costumes and she wanted a particular plum color for one of my dresses. She kept saying, ‘No, no, that’s not it. I’ll bring you in a rose petal from my garden,’ and they matched the color. She was the consummate artist.”

Miramax Books hosted a book launch for “Breakfast with Tiffany: An Uncle’s Memoir,” by Edwin John Wintle, at BLVD that benefited Bari Zahn’s scholarship fund, Living Beyond Belief. Zahn went to college with Wintle, who wrote this Uncle Mame-ish memoir about his 13-year-old niece who came to live with him in the West Village.

The agelessly effervescent Sally Kirkland was there, raving about her role in Craig Chester’s gay romantic comedy, “Adam & Steve,” as was Margaret Whiting, who sang a touching version of “Moon River,” a song she once criticized lyricist Johnny Mercer for because he used the words “huckleberry friend.” (“What the hell did I know?”)

I jokingly asked actress Patricia Clarkson how it felt to be Tom Cruise’s mother-in-law. (Cruise’s new fiancée, Katie Holmes, played Clarkson’s daughter in “Pieces of April.”) She shrieked with laughter and said, “You know, Katie is one of the most beautiful, delightful stars I’ve had the privilege of working with. She’s a lovely woman, and if she’s happy, I say yahoo!”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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