Addison — “Who remembers Gertrude Lawrence?” muses singer Diana Sheehan early in her cabaret set at the 2014 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. Lawrence reigned as Amercia’s undisputed leading star and musical performance diva for over 30 years until cancer cut her career and life short in the 1950’s. “Kind of like Madonna, with better clothes and better music,” quips Sheehan with an ironic shrug. Most of the top playwrights, lyricists and composers of her time wrote major, award-winning shows for Lawrence (The King and I, to name one). But today, her name seems almost forgotten.
Not if Diana Sheehan can help it. Sheehan’s cabaret Searching for Gertrude Lawrence spans Lawrence’s career in a bold, clean, uncomplicated narrative format. It illustrates the power, charm and allure the singer possessed across a well-defined arc of 21 show-stopping musical numbers, each unique and brilliant. Delivering each song with breathtaking precision and honest emotion, Sheehan radiates her respect for the American icon while demonstrating her own merit as a song stylist of sophisticated skill and talent. It’s easy to see how her previous cabarets won Best of Loop Awards in 2012 and 2013. Sheehan builds from her earlier experiences, balancing exposition and gossipy tidbits expertly in context with each song’s sentiments.
Sheehan has admired Gertrude Lawrence since her teen years and began creating this cabaret back in the ’90s. Performed at Out of the Loop in the intimate Studio Theatre space, the music soars with decent acoustics. The superlative James McQuillen directed Sheehan, arranged the tunes and provides piano accompaniment with Rick Norman on upright bass. A trio of comely lads in dinner jackets appears “out of thin air” to sing back up on one number; and a certain handsome, well-known professional talent joins Sheehan as Noël Coward in the first set (in borrowed trousers opening night) to the delight of all in attendance. Now if only WaterTower would mount Coward’s play Private Lives and cast this perfectly matched duo.
Costumer John Ahrens constructs the quintessential classy visual with Sheehan’s attire as “Gertie.” In the first set, she performs in a pale, salmon-hued, drop-waisted, beaded vintage 1920’s frock, looking the eternal coquette, fresh but a bit past virginal. In the second set, she swoops back on stage wearing a daring, full-skirted, strapless ball gown in nude and black, with rhinestone bracelets for drama, securing her full-length black velvet gloves. It’s the perfect ensemble for her songs from The King and I. The entire cabaret exists as a close to perfect spirited homage to Gertrude Lawrence as one could imagine.
» Searching for Gertrude Lawrence repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 15; and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 16 in the Studio Theatre at the Addison Theatre Centre
» WaterTower Theatre's 2014 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival is 10 days of live theater, dance, music and visual art. To see the full schedule, go here.