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A CurtainUp Review
Dame Edna: The Royal Tour
By Elyse Sommer
Everything about this royal tour has been geared towards taking the stuffiness out of royalty and fame, and buffing the glitter to a rhinestone and sequin studded gloss. The svelte, glamorous royal visitor, Dame Edna Everage, is not a lady (or, gentleman, to give credit to the wizard behind this drag queen's throne, an actor-writer, married man and father of four, Barry Humphries) inclined to keep a stiff upper lip. If it's on her lung , it's on her tongue, and the more politically incorrect the better.
Since much of Dame Edna's fame has been spread via television, the evening begins with a brief roll take summarizing her transformation from plainclothed Australian housewife to international celebrity whose gowns would make Liberace smile in his grave. When the royal curtain rises Dame Edna's entrance is very grand indeed -- a head-to-toe vision in mauve pink she sashays down a circular staircase that's an architectural blend of the Ziegfield Follies, and one of those dream wedding factories like Leonard's in Great Neck. One look at the steely twinkle behind the bejewelled harlequin glasses is enough to tickle your funny bone.
Being a woman of uncertain years, Dame Edna is no shrinking gladiola (her favorite flower) but a woman whose royal self-esteem permeates the stage like musk. Her daffy brand of all-inclusive putdown humor has just enough of a good-natured edge to appeal to "possums" (her favorite term of endearment) across the age and taste spectrum.
What exactly is the show about? And just what is it Dame Edna says and does that's so funny?
Like Seinfeld, it really isn't about anything. As Edna herself sums up the show specifically and theater in general: "it's not a show but a conversation between two people -- one more interesting. My own focusing group." Only minutes into the proceedings she thus turns to the audience to make them both the butts and partners of her performance. She begins with the "paupers" in the cheaper seats, later dubbed "mizzies" for Les Miserablesand their location in the mezzanine. Next she aims her conversational insults at individuals in the front section of the orchestra. This sort of involuntary audience participation can be hilarious and make each performance different enough to spur repeat visits. It also runs the risk of falling flat and coming off as several levels beneath the wit of this carefully developed character. At the performance I attended, for example, the husband of an audience member who was actually phoned from the stage refused to cooperate. A mother daughter wined and dined on stage, on the other hand, ended up having a grand time.
Besides these unpaid "performers" lassoed in by Dame Edna's imperious to the fourth wall spiel there are also pianist Andrew Ross and two long-legged, Ednaettes-in-waiting to give Dame Edna: The Royal Tour the feel of being more than the one-person vehicle it is.
To answer the second part of the above question about what it is Dame Edna says and does that's so funny, it's a matter of the parts more than the sum. These parts are funniest when she stops leaning on the audience and lets us see how, even as a temporary green card visitor to our shores, she knows her New York -- including celebrity New York, the Chelsea neighborhood her fashion designer son Ken calls home and even the outer boroughs where her daughter Valmai has settled down with a former female tennis star. The few songs interspersed with the chat are sung in a shrill but cultured voice that's best described as enthusiasm boosted by chutzpah (a word not out of place since Dame Edna confides that she's discovered her Jewish roots and that Madeline Albright is her cousin.
Not to be overlooked in recounting this show's assets are Stephen Adnitt's costumes. The Chinese Red sequined gown with slit all the way up the side is that " an Australian nun went blind making" is the last of four extravagantly drag-witted design. One blue number even has her mysteriously levitating skywards. All are accessorized with enough bracelets and rings to put Elton John to shame and are said to cost anywhere from $2,000 to $16,000. And you thought you spent a lot for your ticket!
To conclude with a paraphrased Tallulah Bankhead anecdote. When the flamboyant Tallulah (who probably would have adored Dame Edna) was in Private Lives she is said to have responded to her friends' praises with "yes, darling but is it Amanda?" One of those friends, Carol Channing, has been quoted as telling her "Who cares whether it's Amanda, Tallulah? Everybody paid their money to see and hear you laugh like that and romp around." To anyone inclined to ask: "Yes, but is this theater?" I can only reply: My dear Possums, who cares. You pay your money to see those hilarious getups, to laugh without embarrassment at the impolitic insults, and open your arms like a bridesmaid hoping to catch one of the gladiolas she tosses into the crowd.