Ira Lee Collings

July 3, 2016 | By | Add a Comment

Ira Lee Collings 2016When both the singer and his accompanist took the stage wearing red rubber clown noses, the audience could have been forgiven for thinking the pair of them were up to some sort of satire of a cabaret act, about to play the whole set for laughs. But no such thing was afoot. For his recent show at Don’t Tell Mama, Ira Lee Collings had been rooting through drawers and closets and come up with the noses, along with a couple of other minimal and seemingly irrelevant props: a desktop rainbow flag and a small porcelain dinner bell. The name of the show was “Simply, Ira Lee,” and it was mostly just that: a prosaic, benign walk down memory lane, looking back at his life from the vantage point of age 80. (The show’s lengthy subtitle was a bit less on point: “A Gay Geezer Celebration Through the Looking Glass…warts and all.”) Mercifully, the clown noses were abandoned after the opening number: the on-the-nose—you should excuse the expression—”Put On a Happy Face” (Strouse & Adams). From then on it was a litany of mostly very familiar songs, interspersed with Collings’s genial, loosely constructed narrative, both his words and the music making largely positive statements about a long and happy life.

In one case, at least, the song was overly familiar in a cabaret context. Can we at least think about calling a temporary moratorium on “Here’s to Life” (Phyllis Molinary, Artie Butler)? Of late, it has appeared in multiple autobiographical sets, and this overkill is in danger of ruining a perfectly good song. Other Collings selections, while thematically appropriate, were also close to “that-old-thing-again” status: “Who Are You Now?” (Jule Styne, Bob Merrill), “At Last” (Harry Warren, Mack Gordon), and “Nothing Can Stop Me Now!” (Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse). “Lose That Long Face” (Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin), and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” (Strouse & Adams) seemed redundant in relation to earlier selections. Even the evergreens “There’s a Small Hotel” (Rodgers & Hart) and “Just in Time” (Styne, Comden & Green) made you long for a number you’d never heard before. Not only did Collings rely mostly on chestnuts, there was also a lack of originality in his interpretations of them. At least on “Just in Time,” he altered some lyrics, paying tribute to his partner of 30 years, whom he met through a personal ad and introduced later in the show. Collings seemed most himself, and touching, in his rendition of “Come In from the Rain” (Carole Bayer Sager, Melissa Manchester).

He sings well enough for his age, although he has a tendency to hold too many notes that don’t need holding, as if to prove that he still can. He can. The show was lifted considerably by musical director John M. Cook on a gamely supportive piano. The one effective production value, in what was clearly a director-less show, was Collings’s use of several blown-up black-and-white photographs depicting his early life in a small, remote Indiana town, as the youngest of eight children. The pictures would have been even more effective projected onto a large screen rather than just held up by him. By and large, his anecdotes about his childhood, his sense of otherness, and his determination to move beyond it all were charming.

“Simply, Ira Lee (A Gay Geezer Celebration Through the Looking Glass…warts and all)

Don’t Tell Mama  –  June 15, 20

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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