Elaine Stritch, Polly Bergen, Marilyn Maye Offered "Their Favorite Things" at Nothing Like a Dame

News   Elaine Stritch, Polly Bergen, Marilyn Maye Offered "Their Favorite Things" at Nothing Like a Dame The Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative of The Actors Fund pitched its 17th annual Nothing Like a Dame party March 26 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre, taking its thematic cue from another Rodgers and Hammerstein song title (and the new Playbill.com series of the same name).

Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Polly Bergen
Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Polly Bergen Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Thirteen headliners stepped up to the plate to name "Their Favorite Things!" and batted out a show that raised $60K for the organization. If anything, this edition proved there's nothing like an older dame, with the evening's top honors going to the octogenarians on the bill—Polly Bergen, Marilyn Maye and Elaine Stritch.

Bergen spilled a little backstage dish from her saucer, recalling that her friendship with Newman goes back to First Impressions, the 1959 musical version of Pride and Prejudice in which they were sisters together. "We sorta hung out together because the other people were kinda funny and weird," she said cautiously. "Hermione Gingold played our mother, to give you an idea. She thought the show was about her—and, when she was through, it was."

For her favorite thing, Bergen sang Herman Hupfeld's big hit. No, not "When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba." No, not "He Plays Piano and He Plays by Ear." It was a little ditty he dashed off in 1931 for a show called Everybody's Welcome, and it was actually sung to a character named Polly. Now, it's the logo drum-roll for Warner Bros.—the eternal, abiding "As Time Goes By." Needless to add, it wore well on her easy, still-alluring alto. "Pretty good for a broad who's 81," she beamed later at the after-party at—where else?—John's Pizzeria in Times Square.

"Johnny Carson is my favorite thing—he and Steve Allen," declared the ridiculously glamorous Maye. She holds the record for appearances on "The Tonight Show" (76), and that effortless artistry has stayed intact when she returned—full force—to cabaret 15 years ago. Her medley mix for the program ran from "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" to James Taylor, and, in between, she made Randy Newman's relatively new "I Love To See You Smile" seem like an old standard.

Marilyn Maye
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"I'm blessed," she admitted, "blessed with good health and blessed with my voice." She'll next lift it in song at Feinstein's at Loews Regency April 24-May 5. "It's my birthday month—I'll be 84 on April 10—and I'll sing what I want to." Stritch, who marked her 87th last month, displayed no diminishing powers whatsoever, dueling through "You're Just in Love" with her young A Little Night Music co-star, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka. It's a number she learned understudying Ethel Merman, and doing on national tour, in Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam.

She explained that the day before the concert she was walking down Madison Avenue, acting out the number for a friend, when a cop came up to her and asked, "Is something troubling you?" But the moment was saved by a shop clerk, who raced out of Michael Kors and said, "I have a dress that will go with that number." It was a full-length, black-chic muumuu affair, with long slits at the sides that allowed a little shapely leg action, which she aggressively worked. Michael Kors wrote it off as a breast cancer donation.

Herdlicka performed the first number and, by way of an intro, recalled his big "Welcome to the Theatre" moment, at age nine, when his parents (who were in the audience) took him to his first show at the Dallas Music Hall—the national tour of Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing: "All the waiters, dressed in hunter green, form a single line downstage. Carol joins the line. Their arms go up. She lifts the side of her dress. The conductor gives the downbeat. And, my life is changed forever!"

Andrea Burns
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Cranky comedienne Jackie Hoffman came on in character: "I would talk about my favorite things, but I don't have any. Oh, wait! Here's one: Free Mondays."

That was a dig at no-paying benefits, but she went on to say this particular event was "a personal cause for me because I had a major health issue with one of my reproductive organs. I don't have children. I never had children. I always thought they would interfere with my career, and there was one more reason. What was it? Oh, yeah. I hate them!"

Alexandra Silber favored the audience with Bock and Harnick's lovely "Will He Like Me?" from She Loves Me, and Andrea Burns cited West Side Story as her favorite thing, prompting her to sing "I Feel Pretty" as she has through the years, with keys lowered accordingly along the way.

Burns also did the evening's "commercial interruption," explaining why everyone was there: "In the 17 years since Phyllis Newman started the Women's Health Initiative, The Actors Fund has helped over 3,200 women in need. In addition to the wide variety of social services available through the Women's Health Initiative, The Fund has also provided over $4.3 million in emergency financial assistance."

This was seconded by Mary Gadino, a.k.a. "Mary G.," an industry person who was helped by the organization in her recovery from a terrible traffic accident. Returning to entertainment mode, Mario Cantone took the stage, fresh from the Atlantis Gay Cruise Line where he said he "was vacationing with Kirk Cameron." The experience of playing one of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins (Samuel Byck) in 2004 was his favorite thing, and he reviewed the show as Bette Davis, Liza Minnelli and a dead-on Katharine Hepburn. Upping the ante, he did the opening and closing group-sing from Assassins, "Everybody's Got the Right"—as a manic, hair-pulling Judy Garland.

"I can't tell what my favorite things are," Bruce Vilanch insisted right off the bat. "It's a court order." But he did talk about his favorite person, Tallulah Bankhead, with whom he toured in summer stock at age 14 in an atrocity called Murder on the Rocks, which comes with a hilarious anecdote about her enforced visit to Helen Hayes' home in Nyack. He also stuck around and "interviewed" Countess Luann de Lesseps, who seems to be harboring some theatrical aspirations above and beyond "The Real Housewives of New York City."

Mario Cantone
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Before breaking into La Traviata's Violetta, a gorgeously gowned Talise Trevigne raised the bar a bit with: "My favorite thing is the Sitzprobe, which is the moment when an opera singer gets to sit on the stage for the first time with the orchestra. This is usually weeks after much rehearsal, and Sitzprobe is just literally to sit on stage and explore the music."

Another soprano, a very loose and lively Lauren Flanigan, provided a snappy change of pace with a number from her cabaret show of cut Kurt Weill songs. It was called "There's Nothing Left for Daddy (but the Rhumba)."

David M. Lutken, a tall-stemmed Texas troubadour, opened the show with a slow, plaintive "There's Nothing Like a Dame" and came back to close it with a rousing sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land." Woody Guthrie, who would have been 100 years old this year, wrote that song, he said, "right here in New York City at a place called Hanover House—on Feb. 23, 1940, as a response, actually, to Irving Berlin's then very-very-very-very-very popular 'God Bless America.' He thought that that placed a little too much emphasis on God, and he wanted people to count more upon themselves and help each other out." An obscure verse bearing that out:

"Was a big high wall there
Tried to stop me
And on the sign it said
Private Property
But on the other side
It didn't say nothing.
That side was made for you and me
."

*

“I love the idea of putting 'Their Favorite Things' onstage," said Phyllis Newman, who is the engine behind the annual event, in a previous statement. “I recently compiled my list for Playbill and immediately thought, 'Wouldn't this make a great show!'" To read Newman's list of Favorite Things on Playbill.com, click here.

"Their Favorite Things" feature series launched with Tony winner Bernadette Peters and has also featured Tony winner Victoria Clark, Tony nominee Judy Kuhn and Tony nominee Joan Rivers, among others.

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