There's nothin' like a dame and March 18, Broadway's brightest stars set out to prove it.
From the opening number, in which an "Anita"-costumed Chita Rivera lead a chorus of 25 similarly-attired chorus girls in "America," to Bernadette Peters closing the show with "There is Nothin' Like a Dame," the annual Nothing Like a Dame benefit for the Actors' Fund's Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative, was focused on celebrating women who have struggled to overcome illness and loss.
Reprising the popular "America" parody that opened the 2001 Gypsy of the Year, 25 Anitas (of West Side Story fame) of varying ethnicities, size and shape, strutted on the St. James' stage in their pink and lavender, extolling the wonders of New York City and their love of the "Island Manhattan." While they recreated Jerome Robbins' choreography, Chita Rivera, the original Anita in West Side Story, entered and led the girls in the dance.
(One of the promised features of the evening, a reunion of Dreamgirls in Concert stars Heather Headley, Lillias White and Audra McDonald, never materialized. As is the case with special events like these, schedules conflict and plans change.) The total earnings from the sold-out event were being tallied March 19 and will be announced soon.
Tony Award-winner Newman, founder of the Fund's Health Initiative, introduced the evening, cracking jokes about old broads on Broadway and doing her own version of Elaine Stritch's At Liberty, complete with a black chair she dragged to different points on the stage. A breast cancer survivor, Newman's mission is to help underinsured and uninsured women in the entertainment industry get mammograms, pap smears, medicines and HIV/AIDS treatment. Three of the 20,000 women benefitted by the Initiative spoke about their experiences. Maria Davis, an HIV/AIDS patient, transformed from a 96 pound invalid into a 140 pound businesswoman through the efforts of the Actors' Fund. Two actresses, Cindy Thrall (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Nicole Bradin (tick, tick...BOOM!), were also aided — Thrall with back surgery for her pain and a much needed breast exam for Bradin, which found the cancer her practitioner ignored.
Thrall's surgery went through on Sept. 11, a date emphasized at this Nothing Like a Dame. At the close of the show, four brave women who faced the World Trade Center attack were brought on stage by Cynthia Nixon (The Women, "Sex and the City") and publicly thanked.
Other highlights from the Nothing Like a Dame benefit:
• Reunited Chicago stars Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking dancing Bob Fosse's "Cool Hand Luke."
• Polly Bergen, perched atop a grand piano, giving a full hearted rendering of Kern and Hammerstein's "Why Was I Born?" and "Bill."
• Amanda Green and Ann Harada dreaming of one day being "Overestimated" as actresses.
• Tap dancing from seven year old Hannah Leah Dunn, followed by Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" sung by Jennifer Holliday, with tap from teenager Michela Lerman.
• Debra Monk's reading of "The Stepmother," a comic defense of Cinderella's Stepmother.
• Singing and dancing from Sandy Duncan, Don Correia and Guy Stroman in "Ten Cents a Dance."
• Roz Ryan belting the double entendre number "Keyhole" from One Mo' Time.
• Honorary Dames Tony Randall (subject of several of the evening's dirtiest jokes involving his sex life) and James Naughton delivering quotable quotes from theatrical women.
• The Radio City Rockettes, costumed like Chicago cast members and draped across chairs, dancing their precision interpretation of the latin-flavored "La Vida."
• Audra McDonald lamenting the loss of a man and a best friend in "Tess' Torch Song."
• Former Seesaw star Michele Lee giving "I'm Way Ahead."
• A jazzy, scatting interpretation of "I've Got Your Number" by Lea DeLaria.
• Kathleen Turner speaking as Tallulah in a glimpse from Sandra Ryan Heyward's Tallulah.
Since 1996, the Women's Health Initiative has disbursed over $1.75 million worth of financial assistance to women in need. The group sponsors health fairs, has assisted 500 women in the entertainment industry in getting mammograms, and created two new support groups — one for women 40-60 who find the youth-obssessed industry challenging and one for women living with HIV/AIDS. This is the sixth Nothing Like a Dame event. Past Dame evenings have brought in $1.25 million for the Initiative.
Both the Actors' Fund of America and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (the latter produces the evening) raise support for the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative. For more information on the group, visit http://www.actorsfund.org/human/social/newman.html.
— By Christine Ehren