Club Review: Ann Talman’s “The Shadow of Her Smile”

June 1, 2022 | By

Unique is the best word—maybe the only word—to describe the song-stacked narrative that Ann Talman has created for her cabaret act at Feinstein’s/54Below. She calls the show The Shadow of Her Smile, after the haunting, Oscar-winning song that Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster wrote for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to emote to in 1965’s The Sandpiper—but that’s yet another story.

Ann Talman (Photo: Tess Steinkolk)

Talman’s tall tale begins 16 years later when Taylor, with no other place to run to, tried Broadway—the hard way, in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. She was the formidable Regina Gibbins, and Talman was her designated daughter, Alexandra. It was absolute dead-on casting because Talman in 1981 looked exactly like Taylor in 1945 when she played National Velvet.

Visually, this was a mother-daughter relationship you could believe in, and it continued off-stage and off-camera for decades until Taylor’s death, existing mostly in Talman’s heart and mind. She is reluctant to abandon these memories, and, in a cabaret setting, that means she strings them along as she sings them along, straight out of the American Songbook. There are 17 standards in all, beginning with and ending with “The Shadow of Your Smile.”

You are treated to numbers like “Once in a Lifetime” (Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse), “Why Did I Choose You” (Michael Leonard, Herbert Martin), “If My Friends Could See Me Now!” (Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields), “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” (George and Ira Gershwin), “Make Someone Happy” (Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green), “That’s What Friends Are For” (Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager) and “I Could Write a Book” (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart). If you get the idea, you’ve pretty much get the act. 

The songs are used like a film score—sometimes an entire song, sometimes merely snippets—heightening the moods in this tale of two radically different women coming together. They begin as mother and daughter in a play, and that extends off stage. Theirs is an open-door dressing room relationship, and it continues when they take on London. Talman uses her surrogate mother far from home base, and Taylor jumps right in willingly, offering mother-daughter advice, life advice, down-and-out advice, you name it—and always with that great brand of humor. Anyone who has spent time with the star during her last three decades and observed her self-depreciations will see the truth in Talman’s accounts.

But the kicker in Talman’s telling is her dead-on imitation of Elizabeth Taylor talking. The timber of the voice is dead-center, the tone serious and then grande dame, the cackle laugh, the speech rhythms. It’s not so much an impersonation as it is an accurate representation. Every time she spoke as Elizabeth, the audience did a deep inhale and the room got very quiet. It was magic at work.

The channeling of Dame Elizabeth, immaculately executed, drew tears as the evening wore on. The audience didn’t want her to disappear into the ether. They wanted more and more stories.

This was Talman’s break-in performance. Her show, under the direction of Lina Koutrakos, is sure to tighten and grow stronger as she does it. Musical director Alex Rybeck’s supportive hand is right in place, creating each mood beautifully.

Unique, indeed! This is an evening that can play clubs, small theatres, colleges (film schools should eat it up), wherever there are Elizabeth Taylor fans wanting fodder for their dreams.

***

Presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below on March 31. It will be presented at the venue again on September 13 and 14.

 

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Charles Nelson, a former professor in theatre, specializes in world theatre history, playscript and character analysis, stage direction, the American playwright and musical theatre, opera history, dance history, and the Great American Songbook. He has an MFA in Opera Direction, and was an Adjunct Professor at Montclair State University. He has been an editorial researcher at "People" magazine, NBC News, and Condé Nast.

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