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Theater | Cabaret Review

Polly Bergen Pours Voice, Heart Into Songs

October 03, 2002|DAVID C. NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For decades, up until around the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Manhattan's nightclub scene reigned as the epitome of romantic sophistication. That golden era is alive and kicking in Costa Mesa, where Polly Bergen's magnificent cabaret turn is galvanizing the Orange County Performing Arts Center through Saturday.

The ambience is intimate, with Founders Hall reconfigured into a roomful of tables and chairs. The superb accompaniment of Joseph Thalken (piano) and Jered Egan (bass) heralds the star attraction. From her first offstage bars of Jerry Herman's "It's Today" from "Mame" to her dove-toned encore of "The Party's Over" (her signature recording hit), it's magic time.

Few performers of her generation can have vaulted time as successfully as Bergen has. Ineffably elegant in basic black, she appears possibly old enough to have mothered a teenager or two, but grandchildren? Well, if Bergen says so, I must believe her.

Such is the pull of her irresistible personality. Although Bergen has been up one side of show business and down the other, on stage she is unpretentious, with a rich sense of humor and a palpable love of what she is doing.

What she is doing is singing her heart out in an airtight 70-minute set that ends much too quickly. Under Richard Jay-Alexander's shrewd direction, Bergen's program sports engaging conversation between numbers. She recalls how losing the role of Ruth Etting in "Love Me or Leave Me" to Doris Day led to her Emmy-winning television performance in "The Helen Morgan Story."

Perched on the piano, she pours open-throated emotion into "Why Was I Born?" and "Bill," and it's 1957 all over again.

Time's effect on Bergen's chops is negligible, and she has developed a force approaching Judy Garland levels and an interpretive depth worthy of Mabel Mercer. Janis Ian's "Stars" has the power of an elegiac one-act play, while Kander and Ebb's "So What?" from "Cabaret" raises goose bumps.

She has a comic field day with "He Ain't Mr. Right (But He's Mr. Right Now)," borrowed from Broadway's Sally Mayes, one of Bergen's many gracious acknowledgments throughout. Her syncopated take on Stephen Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company" is stunning, a potent alternative to Elaine Stritch's iconic original. Bergen follows this with a definitive reading of "I'm Still Here" from "Follies."

Her finale links Leon Russell's "A Song for You" with a full-throttle rendition of Vincent Youmans' "Without a Song." At Tuesday's opening, Bergen's genuine surprise at the standing ovation she received was class personified, which sums up both this incandescent performer and her must-see limited engagement.

*

"Polly Bergen in Concert," Orange County Performing Arts Center, Founders Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Today-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Ends Saturday. $49. (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-7878. Running time: 70 minutes.

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