CERRITOS — She sings! She dances! She acts! She tells jokes! What a talent! Shirley MacLaine's one-woman performance for the season's opening night Friday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts was a nonstop, high-voltage tribute to the joys of versatility.
But wait a minute. Let's keep this in context.
Despite her unstinting enthusiasm and undeniable charm, MacLaine didn't actually do most of the above tasks strikingly well, although some were more successful than others.
Her singing, for example, had its good and bad moments. At her best with sweet-toned ballads, MacLaine was considerably less appealing when she tried to belt out high notes that pushed her vocal skills too far beyond their limits.
Her dancing, except for one exuberant high-kicking, in-your-face outburst, was mostly all posture and movement and manner. Some of her imagery--"Sweet Charity" was a good illustration--is so well-known from movie posters that MacLaine only had to strike the familiar pose to generate spirited applause.
Even without the youthful vigor of her early years, however, there was no denying her remarkable physical fluidity, the dexterity with which she made the difficult seem easy, and the startling pliability in every one of her limbs.
Jokes? Well, MacLaine didn't so much do jokes; she told stories while tossing off spontaneous-sounding lines, often with good- natured jibes at herself. Admiring the auditorium, she noted that she'd never worked in it before, "At least not in this lifetime." Describing her relationship with Tom Cruise, MacLaine suggested that he came to see her show, "to get an idea what his wife is going to look like in 40 years."
Perhaps predictably, for a former dancer who spent much of her professional life in films, MacLaine's trump cards were her sheer celebrity presence and her unflagging abilities as an actor.
Always in command of the stage, always alert to--and willing to use--the audience's awareness of the details of her public persona, MacLaine made nearly every number into a personally oriented mini-drama.
An opening piece was structured around songs from Broadway musicals that are associated with her in one way or another. The obvious irony was that MacLaine had started off as a musical theater hoofer (with a much-praised substitution for Carol Haney in 1954's "Pajama Game"), but almost never got to sing and dance in pictures such as "The Apartment," "Irma La Douce" and "Two for the Seesaw."
Another number was set up by her much-publicized spiritual quests. Quietly offering to take the audience into her confidence, she described a trip to an underground city in Peru, where she met a wise old guru named Mr. Calabash. Remarkably, few of the listeners picked up on the slowly unfolding gag until she began to repeat the mantra taught to her by Mr. Calabash: "ink-a-dink-a-do, a-dink-a-do. . . ." It was a tale well worthy of Jimmy Durante.
But the finest segments in her show involved neither dance nor jokes. The first was a lengthy medley of standards arranged to depict MacLaine's view of a woman's love life. By singing bits and pieces of songs--usually choosing only the most telling lines--MacLaine was able to fully apply her acting abilities to the material without having to rely too heavily on her vocal skills.
An equally superb segment was built around a dark, passionate rendering of Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here." It is a song that has been reduced to musical meatloaf by nearly every aging cabaret chanteuse in the country, yet MacLaine made it into something fresh and new and prime. Again, part of its impact traced to the lyrics' clear associations with her own career. Equally important, she performed the piece with consummate dramatic subtlety, capturing and articulating the multilayered meanings in each of Sondheim's lines.
It was an appropriate climax for the evening. Far more than her hard-working versatility, it was the perfect summing-up of exactly what it is that Shirley MacLaine does so well.
MacLaine also appeared at Cerritos on Saturday and Sunday.