Gretchen Reinhagen

December 28, 2017 | By | Add a Comment

When a cabaret show begins with the song “Life Sucks and Then You Die” (Ray Jessel) you might be forgiven for thinking you’re in for yet another “poor me” sob story without benefit of even a minimally redeeming happy ending. But in the case of Gretchen Reinhagen’s recent, entirely enjoyable set at Don’t Tell Mama, you’d have been—you should excuse the expression—dead wrong. In her opening narrative following that number, she claimed that this new act of hers was “essentially about nothing.” She amended this assertion by admitting that she has “kind of a soft spot for anything ridiculous,” then proceeded to prove it with such elements as bookending video clips, the first showing her awkwardly vacuuming an apartment, the closer depicting Reinhagen staring down a completely unconcerned cat, with the pair of them wearing matching goldenrod-colored babushkas. “Ridiculousness is something we need right now,” she added, perhaps unnecessarily. Her eclectic-plus set (directed by Barry Kleinbort, with musical direction by Tracy Stark) required a title, so Reinhagen dubbed it #iBlame Paleo, after a current fad diet. Why not?

“What’s a Nice Girl Like Me Doing Working in a Joint Like This?” (Norman Martin) belied the stories she told of her real-life boss at her day job, a nice man, refreshingly without a hint of sexual oppression. Reinhagen’s “idol,” Kaye Ballard, who hardly wallowed in negativity and displayed a sense of the absurd in her very long heyday, got a nifty dual tribute with “Sara Lee” (Kander & Ebb), the go-to feel-better-with-bad-for-you-food song originally written for Ballard, and “Teeny Tiny,” which Ballard wrote with Marshall Barer. Even when she sang a standard, she used it as an occasion for fun. For example, Reinhagen and company couldn’t resist pairing “Tea for Two” (Vincent Youmans, Irving Caesar) with Stark’s far less prosaic paean to “Coffee.” Reinhagen also augmented lyrics to Aaron “T-Bone” Walker’s mock blues “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad),” and she wrote completely new lyrics to Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave,” retitling the song “Hot Flash.”

The apogee of what I can only call Reinhagen’s cheery pessimism or upbeat skepticism was a stunning four-song “Airplane Medley,” arranged by Kleinbort and David Gaines. A seriously fearful flyer, Reinhagen once had to fly with her wife and mother from Boston to California, seated between the two women. A charming and funny story of in-flight role reversal between the usually nervous Nelly and the usually calm cucumber on either side of her—and Reinhagen’s reactions to each—led neatly to the mashup of Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” which had been introduced by Kaye Ballard when it was still called “In Other Words”; “Come Fly with Me” (Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Kahn); Bob Dorough’s “Should the Need Arise”; and “What Do We Do, We Fly” (Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim). On this extended number and throughout the show, Stark was a completely complicit partner, on both piano and copious vocals. She also composed the closing song, “Life’s Been Kind,” the show’s real theme. That wasn’t a spoiler alert, as the run has ended, alas.

Don’t Tell Mama – November 25, 28, December 16, 19

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Robert Windeler is the author of 17 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.

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