By William Wolf
ANITA GILLETTE WOWS WITH SLICK NEW ACT IN BIRDLAND DEBUT
After a lifetime in show business, ever-delightful Anita Gillette has been working on pulling it all together in a one-woman show titled “Anita Gillette: After All…” The result is dazzling, classy entertainment. Although the nostalgia is there, the star avoids the peril of being locked into the past. The way the show is smartly structured (Barry Kleinbort directs), its dips into Gillette’s career are honed into what is very much now, a fun tour of what an appealing, charming and versatile performer Gillette is at this very moment. She’s a contemporary treasure ripe for any big time booking anywhere, amply proved after Jim Caruso enthusiastically introduced the premiere of her new act at Birdland (January 30, 2012).
I didn’t know quite what to expect. I first interviewed Gillette when she got the big break of substituting for Anna Maria Alberghetti in “Carnival,” and I have watched her stage performances ever since. But the sassy, clever personality that glistens when she surveys her history with the cumulative know-how that has emerged from her stage and television performances, experiences, relationships and the resulting perspective communicates a knockout of a performance with its take on the world of show business as she has been living it.
First of all, Gillette can really sing, whether putting her own twist on “Cuanto le Gusta,”teasing us with “Don’t Tell Mama” or romanticizing saucily with “Teach Me Tonight” Gillette consistently demonstrates that she knows her way around music and lyrics. Ditto for such choices as “How Deep is the Ocean?,” “Shall We Dance?,” “I Still Believe in Love” and many more, Her well-trained voice has a range that she can soar with or toy with, depending on what she’s after.
Gillette knows how to have fun on stage and make it seem spontaneous, including with her liberal reportage of anecdotes. After describing how producer David Merrick had a big sign with her name erected on a theater marquee, she tells how some weeks later she got the bill. Her tale of a visit to the White House when she met President Lyndon Johnson becomes hilarious as she recounts how Johnson, a tall man and her being short, slipped his arm around what he assumed was her waist. She plants her hand over her right breast and holds it there to demonstrate where Johnson’s hand rested during their entire conversation.
She reports on her friendship with Irving Berlin, who wrote the delightful song “The Secret Service” for her in the show “Mr. President,” and she does a great job singing it. Then she mentioned an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show and a phone conversation with Berlin the next day in which he gently mentioned that he has written lots of songs, implicit criticism for her having chosen a number by Jule Styne.
Gillette has the gift of being able to imitate the voices of characters in the stories she spins. She can deftly wiggle her body to emphasize a lyric, whether trying to be sexy or satirical. The act reflects considerable thought in planning, as the anecdotes flow smoothly, all part of the skillful timing and well-interspersed with the chosen songs, whether they illustrate a point in her career or emerge as comment. A frequently winking tone makes us complicit in her take on the Broadway scene meshed with her experiences. It all adds up to Gillette being both a seasoned singer and a sly comedienne.
I like the elan reflected in her rendition of “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” and the spirit in her encore “Are You Having Any Fun?” The resounding answer to that question is “yes,” thanks to this snappy, revealing many-sided view of Anita Gillette in full force as the woman she is today. Reviewed at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-581-3080