If you could somehow harness the energy that Debbie Gravitte exudes when she performs onstage, you might be able to illuminate every light on Broadway, if not the entire city. Gravitte, formerly Debbie Shapiro Gravitte, formerly Debbie Shapiro, achieved diva status in the award winning revue of Jerome Robbins' work, Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Gravitte herself earned a Tony for her performance in that show, which included a show-stopping version of the little-known Irving Berlin tune, "Mr. Monotony," a song she will reprise in her upcoming cabaret engagement this month at Rainbow & Stars.
Gravitte won the Tony in 1989, and some may wonder where she's been hiding since then. Aside from some concert work around the country and a role in the ill-fated musical Ain't Broadway Grand, Gravitte has been living in Los Angeles, producing another kind of sweet music, three children. She is now the mother of three, a five-and-a-half year-old boy and two-year-old twins (a boy and a girl). About motherhood, Gravitte relates, "I think it's been the best thing in the world for me. I think it's put my feet on the ground; it's made me a better person, a warmer person. I think it's the best thing for anybody in the world."
If raising three children weren't enough, Gravitte also found time during her extended California stay to star in the West Coast premiere of Neil Simon and Marvin Hamlisch's The Goodbye Girl. A few years back, she had attended the opening night of the Broadway production, starring Bernadette Peters and Martin Short, and thought, "I would love to play this role. I don't say that a lot," Gravitte explains, "but I did do it that night because I thought she should be a warm, mushy person." Although she received raves for her performance as single mom Paula McFadden, Gravitte admits, "I never felt embraced by [L.A.]. But in New York I feel completely loved by people, so this is clearly where I need to be and where I want to be. And, besides, we wanted to move back east for our family as well."
So, Gravitte (along with her husband and their three kids) packed her bags and returned to the East Coast this past February, where she faced the question, "How do I let people know that I'm back?" The answer: City Center's Encores! series. Gravitte had been approached on numerous occasions about starring in one of the Encores! productions, which present some of the greatest American musicals in concert over three weekends each year. "They called me about Chicago. They called me about DuBarry Was a Lady. I think they even called about one other show. . .I was always available, and then they went, 'Well, oh, no, Faith's doing it. Well, oh, no, Ann Reinking's decided to do it.' I was kind of salivating to begin with about the Encores! thing, even though I'd never seen one and didn't know anything about them." Cut to April of this year. "All of a sudden my agent calls and said I had an offer to do Boys from Syracuse." After a rehearsal period that Gravitte admits was "fast and furious," the production opened to raves. Aileen Jacobson in Newsday wrote, "The women are terrific, especially the kittenish [Rebecca] Luker and the lusty Gravitte," while Ben Brantley in The New York Times and just about everyone else who attended enthused about Luker, Sarah Uriarte Berry and Gravitte's delicious, show stopping rendition of "Sing for Your Supper." Said Brantley: "Just listen to the ecstatic roar that emerges from the audience after three comely young women finish stepping their perfectly synchronized way (and with close vocal harmonies to match) through a number called 'Sing for Your Supper.' There's both a giddy, sensual looseness and a mathematical precision in what the performers deliver here."
The Encores! engagement also coincided with the release of Gravitte's second solo album for Varese Sarabande. She chose to follow her album of songs by that Disney master, Alan Menken, with one that focused on the songs of the MGM songbook. "At first we started with torch songs, because I love to sing torch songs. So were going to do 'MGM Torch,' and then I thought that might exclude a lot of great things. Basically," she adds with amusement, "it was stuff that we liked, [producer] Bruce Kimmel and myself." What Kimmel and Gravitte wound up with was an eclectic mixture of songs ranging from the Gershwins' "Too Late Now" to a version of the "Theme from 2001" that beautifully shows off both the power and the sensitivity of Gravitte's creamy alto.
Influenced by legendary singers like Lena Horne, Doris Day, Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney--women who have graced concert halls and cabaret rooms all around the world--Gravitte now prepares for her own two-week stint at Rainbow & Stars, where she will sing "a little bit here, a little bit there . . . it's a little bit of my show-biz life." For anyone who has ever seen Gravitte perform, it is evident that she possesses one of the more exuberant stage personalities, infusing songs with a genuine sense of excitement that is completely contagious. When asked whether she has to tame her performing for a more-intimate cabaret setting, the Tony winner laughs and explains, "When I first started doing clubs, I had this phony, 'I'm in the club now. Here's my in-the-club character. . .I had been in Atlantic City, and I opened for Jay Leno. Jay and I were hanging out a little bit, and he said, 'You're so funny. Why aren't you like that in your night club act?" And I said, 'Don't I have to be a certain way?' And he said, 'No, be you. You're funny.' [Then] I went to London to sing, and I was there for two weeks, and these people don't know me from anything. All of a sudden I discovered how to be me [onstage], and it's much better now. So I don't really have to tame myself, I just have to focus!"
Gravitte hopes the Rainbow & Stars engagement might lead to an extended run elsewhere. "After doing Boys, I got this idea," says Gravitte. "I wanted to do a good, old-fashioned night-club act with dancing guys. . .I'm hoping that [Rainbow & Stars] goes well enough that someone will say, 'Come do it now in a bigger venue.'" Whether it's on Broadway, in an intimate cabaret setting, or in a large concert hall, just be glad that Gravitte is happy to "Sing for [Her] Supper." **Gravitte sings at Rainbow & Stars for a two-week engagement beginning June 17. Show times are Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8:30pm and 11pm, and there is a $40 cover charge, with dinner required at the early shows. For information/reservations, call 212-632-5000. Also, check out Gravitte's home page at www.thelimelight.com/debbie.html
Fans of the one-and-only Betty Buckley can rejoice this week, as it was announced today in The New York Times that Ms. B will be returning to The Great White Way in September in the first new musical of the season. Buckley will co-star with F. Murray Abraham, Susan Egan and Elayne Boosler in the musical version of Marivaux's play Triumph of Love. The show, which begins previews in September at the Walter Kerr Theatre, casts Buckley and Abraham as brother and sister who "raise a young prince in a very intellectual way to deny his emotions." Buckley also is currently at work on her newest solo album, which features orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, who just won the first-ever Tony for Best Orchestrations for his work on Titanic. And, even more news: Buckley is currently filming a cameo role in a new Robert Redford Film, The Horse Whisperer. It looks like it's going to be another great year for the talented Buckley and for her fans as well. Stay tuned for more. . .
Boy can Anne Runolfsson sing! I was able to catch Runolfsson last Friday night at Eighty-Eights in the West Village and was thoroughly impressed with her dynamic singing, which can be sweetly purring one minute and roof-raising the next. What is unique about her singing is the blend of a pop sound with an opera singer's technique and an actor's sensibility.
Runolfsson opened with Janis Ian's "This Must Be Wrong," which was my only reservation of the evening. The song seemed a bit harsh for an opening song, which should really invite an audience to come along for a journey. However, Runolfsson more than made up for the first number with the rest of her wildly varied set. Many of the songs were from her terrific new CD, At Sea (Midder Music/Lili Run Records), including the three songs that followed the opening: a beautiful version of Ed Dixon's "Sailing" and a wonderful pairing of "The Look of Love" and "Speak Low," which built to a dramatic climax. Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well" was followed by Rodgers and Hart's melancholy "He Was Too Good To Me." Runolfsson, who jokingly refers to herself as a "recovering coloratura," then launched into a bravura rendition of "How Can I Be Sure?" that showed off her huge belting range. She also scored with two comic pieces, the "Horse Head" medley, which has to be seen rather than explained, and Frank Loesser's "Rumble," in which Runolfsson tells the frenzied tale of being plagued by her neighbor's constant piano playing ("Rumble, rumble, rumble on the bottom; tinkle, tinkle, tinkle on the top").
The two dramatic highpoints of the evening were the songs "At Sea," which Runolfsson co-wrote with composer David Friedman and explores her relationship with her father, and Maury Yeston's "New Words," which was delivered to perfection. I've yet to hear anyone sing the Yeston tune (about teaching a young child "new words") better--Runolfsson's vocal shadings and tender reading brought the song to life. Just to listen to the way she sings, "Turn around and look at me. There's a light in my eyes now. And a word for what you see. We call it love, my son. Say love. So hard to say, my son. It gets harder"--was extremely moving. An upbeat version of the standard "When I Fall in Love" followed, and she concluded the act with a no-holds-barred, full-voiced rendition of Harold Arlen's "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead." For encores she treated the audience to a rewritten version of Maury Yeston's "Be On Your Own," entitled "Be On Your Way," and finished with Ned Washington and Dimitri Tiomkine's "Town Without Pity."
Be sure to catch Runolfsson's act at Eighty-Eights. She will sing tonight, Friday, June 13 at 8:30 pm and again on Saturday, June 21 at 8:30 pm and 11:00pm. There is a $12 cover charge and a two-drink minimum. Call 212 924-0088. Eighty-Eights is located at 228 West 10th Street in New York City.
The air dates have finally been set for Bernadette's appearance on the "RuPaul Show," which airs on VH1. The program will feature Peters' sensual take on Sondheim's "Sooner or Later" and will first air on Monday, July 14 at 11pm, with repeat broadcasts on Tuesday, July 15 at 7pm, Saturday, July 19 at 11pm and Monday, July 21 at noon.
And, a reminder that BP will also appear on the "Tom Snyder Show" on CBS on June 18 and will sing in concert at Los Angeles's Universal Amphitheatre on June 20.
DIVAS ON TV
For those of you whose cable gets Channel 21 WLIW, you might want to check out the "Showstoppers" program that airs this Saturday, June 14 from 8-9 p.m. The show, which is hosted by London musical theatre actor Gary Wilmot (Copacabana, The Goodbye Girl), often features performances by English divas. Elaine Paige has previously guested on the program, so you might want to set your VCRs just in case. . . REMINDERS:
Betty Buckley continues her triumphant concert tour, with a stop at the Power Center in Ann Arbor on June 25; call 313-747-3327. Be sure to stop by the Betty Buckley website, located at Playbill On-line. New scrapbook photos and other treats were recently added.
If you're in London, LuPone's critically-acclaimed portrayal of Maria Callas in the West End production of Master Class at the Queens Theatre (Shaftesbury Avenue) is a must-see; call the box office at 0171-494 5040 for further information.
Lacey will take part in a six-week tour of the music of Jerry Herman this summer. The tour dates follow (tickets can be booked beginning in June for most summer playhouses):
July 21-August 2 at the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, CT
August 4-16 at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, ME
August 18-30 at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, MA
McGovern is set to co-host a PBS fundraiser saluting great movie musicals on June 28 on Los Angeles's KCET from 12-2:30 p.m. Other summer plans for McGovern include a tribute to Doc Severinsen on July 8 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. MM will also be part of the Bel Air Jazz Festival on July 5 in the Catskills.
To keep you thinking: What diva will soon be getting her long-overdue caricature hung at Sardi's?
That's all for now. Happy diva-watching!
-- By Andrew Gans
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