Ruby Manger Live! The Farewell Engagement

September 2, 2017 | By | Add a Comment

The vanity, self-indulgence and capacity for delusion among show-business divas—male and female alike—have been satirized regularly over the decades. So there is nothing especially boundary-breaking about Julia Mattison’s Ruby Manger Live! The Farewell Engagement, currently at Feinstein’s/54 Below—yet the talents of Mattison (both as writer and performer) make the show something special. Particularly welcome is her knack for providing outlandish yet telling details about the life and times of Ms. Manger (the name takes the French pronunciation). It doesn’t hurt that Mattison has teamed with imaginative young director Max Friedman (Midnight at the Never Get) as well as with music supervisor and orchestrator Charlie Rosen, who brings a jolting exuberance to the evening’s songs—both the original numbers (by Mattison and Noel Carey) and a few Broadway standards.

The show’s fictional title character is an indomitable but messy veteran of Broadway musicals who’s been on the scene since the mid-1960s. Ruby’s career zoomed late in that decade, then veered for a while into 1970s Hollywood before skidding off the freeway entirely and into the revolving door of addiction and rehab. One thing that helps make the show work is that its target is not so much Ruby, herself, but rather the conventions of the Big Diva Live Special Event. So, we are served an abundance of “special material”; a celebrity pianist/sidekick (Randy Newman, played by the amusing Carey, who performs ditties that sound just like real Newman songs); some “surprise” guests that are clearly not so unexpected; and plenty of treks down the Manger memory lane, augmented with glamorous projected stills and film clips.

Mattison is smart to portray Ruby not as some pathetic has-been, but, rather, as someone with real talent and likability. Never mind that she peers out at the world with a wide-eyed gaze that may once have suggested wonderment but now comes off as chronic confusion. No. Despite her struggles, Ruby can still turn on the star quality. When Mattison cuts loose with her battle belt on the Sondheim classics “Everybody Says Don’t” and “Being Alive,” you may giggle at her dramatic excesses but still find yourself wowed. (The white-hot seven-piece band, led by bassist Danny Weller, deserves considerable credit for the excitement in the proceedings.)

While it’s swell to have Mattison/Manger bite into those familiar showstoppers, it seems practically unnecessary, as the original songs are so good. As songwriters, Mattison and Carey show themselves strikingly adept at comic pastiche. Their songs showcase magical moments from Ruby’s storied career and—incidentally—trace with uncanny precision the sounds of Broadway over several decades. The Sondheim-esque “Like Every New Yorker Does,” which looks back at Ruby’s lean years in the mid-1960s, pulses like a song tailor-made for young Barbra or younger Liza, but passed along to Ruby instead. At one point during this number, Mattison sustains a note through three clearly measured stages of belt: zero vibrato, medium vibrato, and car motor struggling to start. Up soon is the title song from Ruby’s Tony-winning performance as Trudy the Blind Ghost in a show from a few years later: I See You Not Really But You Know What I Mean. This number recreates a fiery dramatic moment from a show rife with social significance (after all, it was I See You that helped Ruby raise awareness of the ghosts among us). Later we get an uproarious selection from our star’s 2005 Broadway comeback, American Pie: The Musical. In a seduction duet with the musical’s co-star, Allen Quiche Lorraine (Taylor Trensch) as “Finch,” Ruby portrays the arguably prototypical MILF, “Stifler’s Mom.” “American Pie Song” is so jam-packed with specifics from the screenplay that I found myself on the verge of believing that a musical adaptation of the 1999 movie actually existed.

Also inventive and clever is a projected film montage (created by Ian Wexler and Masseo Davis) featuring clips from some of the 33 features Ruby appeared in with co-star Jean Dijon (Andrew Kober), including Inside Roberta and Sometimes a Branch Breaks. Again, the devilry is in the detail in this sequence—which features a wide array of cinematic attitudes and an even wider selection of wigs. Dijon is also on hand, live and in person, for a duet with Ruby called “Love Is the Strongest Thing.” It sounds like some raucous number Captain and Tennille might have sung on their disco-era variety hour.

Not all in the show is perfect. There are a few bits that seem lazy and stale, particularly jokes dealing with Ruby’s narcotics excesses and her postmenopausal health or lack thereof. But by and large, Ruby Manger Live! proves to be delightfully silly yet smart musical comedy. For anyone who has enjoyed the old SCTV series or director Christopher Guest’s comedic films, this will be a treat indeed. Let’s hope Ruby pulls herself together and extends the engagement.

Feinstein’s/54 Below – August 14, 28, September 25

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. His features and reviews have appeared in such publications as American Theatre and Back Stage and on As a dramaturg he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. His stage adaptation of Henry James's novel The Tragic Muse was part of the Gilded Stage Festival at the Metropolitan Playhouse in January 2014.

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