For the 20th anniversary of Nothing Like a Dame, the recurring concert event benefitting the Actors Fund’s Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, Bebe Neuwirth directed a line-up of some of Broadway’s brightest singers at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The evening was powerfully focused on beloved leading lady Marin Mazzie, who was presented with the first Phyllis Newman Dame Award.
Over the last year-and-a-half, Mazzie and her husband, actor Jason Danieley, have spoken publicly of Mazzie’s battle with ovarian cancer. Throughout a rigorous and challenging bout of treatments, Mazzie has continued to star in several high-profile stage productions (including her acclaimed run as Anna Leonowens in Lincoln Center Theater’s The King and I) and maintain a varied concert career, all of which has given her ample opportunity to speak of her experience. In accepting the Dame Award, Mazzie was emphatic about her passion to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. She spoke of how there is not yet the technology for early detection of the disease and the importance of changing this. She explained that there is a test people can get for BRCA2 gene mutations, which may indicate a higher risk of ovarian and certain other cancers. If positive, there is an option of prophylactic treatments. Not enough people get this BRCA2 test, and for those who do, it is very expensive. Mazzie and Danieley are fighting to change this, with the solidarity of the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, which has already been instrumental for so many people getting the help they need.
The couple was visibly moved by the event’s show of support from so many of their friends in the industry and sang the praises of the Initiative. Further testimonial was given by cancer survivor Jane Beller, also an actor who has received tremendous support from the organization. She gave a very affecting tribute to her experience and the gratitude, particularly toward Actors Fund social worker Allison Abrams.
The climax of the evening came when Mazzie concluded her remarks singing John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The World Goes ’Round,” which she says has new meaning for her after all she’s been through.
Other highlights of the presentation included:
Two-time Tony winner Christine Ebersole took to the stage and filled the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre with her presence. Few Broadway singers can meet Ebersole’s musicianship, which took her straight to the heart of “Love Is Here To Stay,” a rendition which held the audience rapt.
Musical powerhouse Carol Woods sang “Come Rain or Come Shine”—real slow, then real fast, then real loud—causing intense goosebumps throughout the auditorium as her voice resonated.
Judy Kuhn dazzled with her take on “Ring of Keys,” a song she did not sing in Fun Home. It was a treat to hear her singularly expressive tone and thrilling vibrato on this crowd pleaser. What a fantastic Small Alison she would have made in that show had it come along earlier.
The Marinettes, i.e. Donna Murphy, Mary Beth Peil and Karen Ziemba, proved to be a winning trio, serenading their treasured friend with a medley that included Peil’s classic soprano on “Wunderbar,” and the three ladies paraphrasing Funny Girl to proclaim Mazzie to be “The Greatest Star.” An exciting moment was when Ziemba’s lush voice opened up in the legato of “Wait Till You See Her,” and Murphy and Peil exchanged a glance of rapturous appreciation.
A poignant tribute to the importance of the evening was provided by Tony winner Tonya Pinkins, who spoke of the dramatically increased cancer risk for African-American women. With Abby Dobson and Amber Efé, Pinkins delivered a chilling version of Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species.”
Unexpected hilarity came when stage legend Dana Ivey announced she would be performing a monologue from a Restoration comedy. If you think a segment from William Congreve’s 1700 hit The Way of the World doesn’t seem fun, think again. Ivey brought imperiousness and oodles of cheeky wit to the delight of all present.
Spring Awakening’s Ali Stroker impressed with a fully choreographed “The Other Side of the Tracks” from Little Me. Stroker is more agile and graceful in her wheelchair than most people could hope to be on their feet.
The introductory speech by Phyllis Newman herself set the tone for the whole event. Newman is dealing with respiratory issues and brought an oxygen tank on stage with her. This did nothing to take away from her poise and prowess up there. She recounted an Eleanor Roosevelt joke, saying that a woman is like a tea bag—you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.