Alan Cumming – Inside Out: A Son of Inverness

Alan Cumming

Award-winning actor, singer, and raconteur extraordinary Alan Cumming appeared in concert at Stanford’s Bing Hall, Thursday, January 26, accompanied by Lance Horne, piano and vocals, Eleanor Norton, cello, and Chris Jago, drums and percussion. Cumming (b. 1965) sports an elusive, demonically mercurial persona: a combination of the Scottish dance-hall by way of Edith Piaf, the Broadway stage occupied by the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Liza Minelli, and the bardic, popular tradition that embraces personalities as diverse as Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Bertold Brecht, and Robert Burns. Alternately sentimental, jingoistic, and raucously salacious, Cumming managed to combine a hugely eclectic theatrical and personal history into his “Sappy Songs” rubric, a production he originated at the Café Carlyle in New York City. At ease in a number of languages, brogues, and accents, Cumming could segue into street song, ballad, Cabaret, and his own burlesque of a Robert Burns ode to President Donald Trump, already having suggested – for those who know the context of Cabaret’s pre-Nazi context – “America, watch out.”

Casually dressed in sneakers, vest, and sleeveless dress-shirt, Cumming earns his reputation as “a bawdy countercultural sprite.” As acerbic and vulgar as Jonathan Swift, Cumming often invoked aspects of his own, homoerotic experience, tattoos and all. To illustrate his ‘l’amour de la boue,’ how the French characterize their “love of the mud and demi-monde,” Cumming intoned a song by Jean Renoir, “Princess of the Street.” He had opened with Myley Cyrus’ “The Climb” expressing a ceaseless aspiration, which Cumming complemented with a quote from E.M. Forster’s Howards End: “Make connections.” To court success while preserving one’s roots and humanity seems to dominate the Cumming ethos: having suffered childhood trauma from an abusive father, Cumming found qualified solace in his maternal grandfather, Tom Darling, a WW II hero who suffered from un-diagnosed PTSD. Cumming’s own memoir, Not My Father’s Son, recounts his struggle to transcend a painful childhood environment that did lead, circuitously, to a life in the theater. Cumming reminded us that January 27 marks his fifty-second birthday, recounting prior experience with a relish and a punishing sarcasm that combined Francois Villon with Eduardo Cianelli’s guru from Gunga Din. “Keep your heart open and dreams can come true,” with songs of “Mother Glasgow” and of the absent father (“Dinner at Eight”) by Rufus Wainwright served as emotional foils to Cumming’s defensive stance; in fact, he revealed to each of us our capacity for affective vulnerability.

At times, the coarseness of the narrative became downright crass even in its revelation of the Human Comedy. Cumming had been approached to create a “condom commercial,” the product to be called “Ecstasy” and cosponsored by Ricki Lake. Suffice it to say the graphic implications became inflated. Bertold Brecht, too, joined Cumming’s version of the “Theater of Cruelty,” savagely berating modern greed, ambition, and material callousness. The British reality-television program, “Who Do You Think You Are?” had Cumming investigate his identity, with mixed results, since his heroic grandfather died during a game of Russian Roulette. Cumming snidely remarked that over-sentimentality and hard drinking” remain Scottish, national traits. But lest we sniff with nostalgia and regret, his arrows at Donald Trump include calling our new President “the Eunuch of Thought” and “the Pimp of Democracy.” A personally intense relationship with a young man named “Raven” led to a rather compromising tattoo; yet, given the self-immolating nature of the four month affair of the “heart,” Cumming failed to invoke Poe’s “Nevermore.” Instead, Cumming simply proffered another off-color anecdote that involved neophytes to Raven’s locale.

That Cumming can gravitate from intimacy to epic, from the humane to the sordid, with such easy fluency betokens a grand leisure and security of style we haven’t had since Edith Piaf, whose “I regret nothing!” has its counterpart in Cumming’s singing, “I’m sorry for all the things I’ve done.” He doesn’t mean it. He gloats, he revels in his adventures and erotic errors, a Casanova whose intentions remain philanthropic and entirely innocent. He bathes in mud and arises, phoenix-like, renewed. He, like the British lyricist and compatriot Donovan, casts a loving glow on all he touches, remembers, and celebrates. Alan Cumming perpetually gives birth to a new and improved Self, and so we witness a true labor of love.

End

Archived in these categories: 21st Century.
Bookmark this page for a permalink to this review .

Comments are closed.