By BEN BRANTLEY
Ever since last Saturday night – well, around the time Saturday night turned into Sunday morning – I’ve been hearing voices. One of them is a clear, righteous soprano that recalls Joan Baez, the balladeer of my childhood; another is a lilting, silvery curlicue like that of the soubrette in an operetta from the gaslight era; then there’s the sassy “Hello, boys” trumpet of a girl singer with a big band; and, most hauntingly, there’s the glasslike voice that seems to exist expressly as a container for the shimmering pain within.
All those voices belong to Christine Ebersole, and she uses every one of them – and more – in her unmissable cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle. I have long been an admirer of Ms. Ebersole’s versatility as a New York actress in musicals (and plays, too, but the subject today is song). Listening to the range of her technique packed into roughly an hour of performance time pushed my admiration into something like awe. The effect was like watching a master class with Laurence Olivier, in which the actor transformed himself, without stripping a gear, into a tragic Shakespearean hero, a seedy John Osborne down-and-outer and a fop according to Congreve.
Ms. Ebersole, I was reminded with renewed force, is a rarity among musical comedy stars. She is a genuine multilinguist, who sings fluently in the tongues of other times and places. Anyone knows this who saw her a few years ago in her Tony-winning performance in “Grey Gardens,” inspired by the sad and lonely lives of the Beale ladies of Southampton.
In that show, Ms. Ebersole portrayed both Edith Beale, the mother, in her early middle age (in the first act), and Little Edie Beale, the daughter, in her middle age (in the second act). And the transformation was achieved not only by makeup and costumes and (I presume) mind-set, but also by how each of those characters sang. Mama had a show-off soprano and Little Edie a nasal squawk. You could hear in those voices what these women had listened to all their lives and what sounds and recordings and personalities they had absorbed and were imitating and reacting against.
Now you might argue that Ms. Ebersole was just doing what we expect actresses to do: becoming another person. But in musical comedy – at least among its stars – such metamorphoses happen less frequently than you might expect. Among Ms. Ebersole’s contemporaries, only Donna Murphy shows a similar command in song of time-and-place-setting detail and inflection. (I rank Ms. Murphy’s performance in “Wonderful Town” with Ms. Ebersole’s in “Grey Gardens” as the most specifically realized character portraits I’ve seen in musicals.) Among stars of an earlier generation, at least the ones I’ve seen, only the ever-vital Angela Lansbury commands that particular range of skills. (Come to think of it, throw Ms. Lansbury in “Sweeney Todd” onto my list of meticulously defined musical portraits.)
This is in no way to denigrate other great musical actresses of the moment, a short list that would have to include Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Elaine Stritch and Kristin Chenoweth. (By the way, I’m focusing just on the gals right now; the guys are for another day.) But stars of musicals, for the most part, are like movie stars, in that we expect them always to have the same outsize personalities, with singing voices to match. (Carol Channing and Ethel Merman are the prototypes in this regard.) They tend to assimilate the roles they play into their big, thrilling stage presences, rather than losing themselves in the characters. And for this reason, they need to be carefully cast. (The peaches-and-cream Ms. Peters, a personal favorite of mine, seemed stranded in the role of the rough-hewn Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun.”)
What these women have in common with Ms. Ebersole and Ms. Murphy is an ability to make song feel like a privileged extension of speech: a means of distilling and magnifying emotions into a heightened state of clarity. And without that gift – which the extraordinary singer (and former Broadway ingénue) Barbara Cook is still practicing brilliantly in her 80s – all the technical virtuosity in the world doesn’t mean a thing.
That Ms. Ebersole has this gift of emotional expansiveness, too, was piercingly evident in her set at the Carlyle. In the show’s most wrenching moment, she sang “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” Little Edie’s elegy to a life that never happened (written by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie) from “Grey Gardens.” In this version, there was no trace of the Long Island accent or nasal twang or mother-resenting fury that Ms. Ebersole had used in the Broadway version. Instead, Ms. Ebersole filled the room with a pure incandescent sorrow that somehow seemed to belong to everyone.
Who do you think possesses the gifts I’ve attributed to Ms. Ebersole? I mean among stars past, present and possibly future. Sutton Foster, who’ll be appearing in “Anything Goes” this season, is a possible contender. In any case, I’d love to see this list expand.