Alan Cumming & Ari Shapiro Delight in Queer Cabaret

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Monday October 25, 2021

Alan Cumming and Ari Shapiro
Alan Cumming and Ari Shapiro  

When Alan Cumming was recently asked about his latest show,  "Och and Oy!: A Considered Cabaret," which he is performing around the country with NPR journalist Ari Shapiro, he said it would be "queer, queer, queer." The show, which played Boston's Symphony Hall this past Sunday night as part of the Celebrity of Series of Boston, certainly lived up to that promise. (For more on the Celebrity Series, follow this link.)

Not that there would be anything else from Cumming, a frequent visitor to the Boston audiences (courtesy of the Celebrity Series) with his queer-infused cabaret shows over the years. And this one follows suit in a delightful fashion. What could be more fun than a couple of queer guys sitting around chatting and singing?

And who knew that Shapiro, the lanky, handsome host of NPR's "All Things Considered," has such vocal chops? As he explained, he performed in college musicals and — much to Cumming's chagrin — was a member of the Yale a cappella society but didn't sing professionally until he was coaxed by the musical group Pink Martini to join them at a Hollywood Bowl concert, which cured him forever of stage fright. His tenor has a lovely hook, and his matinee-idol looks give Cheyenne Jackson a run for his money. Let's hope there is more cabaret in his future.

The show has a loose premise — just two queer guys, who have been friends for years, discussing what they have in common, which includes such topics as coming out, meeting their husbands, and how they met backstage at "Cabaret" when Cumming hosted a nightclub in his dressing room (which became his East Village club, Club Cumming).

On coming out, Cumming talked about how he was already a celebrity when he decided to go public, along with his mom's hilarious response. To find that out, pick up Cumming's new autobiography, "Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life", which arrives in bookstores on Tuesday. While Shapiro talked about how he thought he was the only queer teen in Portland, Oregon in the 1980s, only to discover America's only under-age, gay disco, which he would visit wearing a dog collar given him by a protective lesbian friend. He also told how he unintentionally became the poster boy for gay marriage.

The songs nicely augmented the conversation. Shapiro offered "Laughing Matters," a seemingly trenchant commentary on the sorry state of the world that, he explained, was written decades ago for Bette Midler. He said the song only proved the adage by drag star Dina Martina that no matter how bad things can be, they only get worse. Discussing their happy marriages led to the lovely "Lucky," a touching expression of how they both feel about their husbands. And while acknowledging they are married, they haven't lost interest in other men, expressed in a sweet version by Cumming of Kristin Chenoweth's "Taylor the Latte Boy."

As for that queer content, the pair offered their take on one of the most iconic diva duets of all time — Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland singing "Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again," which was expertly sung. They ended the evening on an optimistic note with "Nowadays," even evoking the classic Fosse routine that Cumming said he had to learn in a matter of minutes when working a benefit with Chita Rivera. She was just one of the celebrities mentioned in a hilarious final section where Cumming recalled anecdotes concerning Rivera, Liza Minnelli and Chenoweth, the latter providing the biggest laugh of the evening.

Perhaps because the show initially premiered on Fire Island in 2019, there was little, if no, mention of the pandemic, save for delaying its Boston premiere. It proved an interesting choice and wasn't missed in this effortless evening of stories and song.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].