Album Review: Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs – Live at the Cafe Carlyle (2015)

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“How could I behave as if we’d never met?”

Recorded just after he completed his 2014/5 return to Cabaret at Studio 54, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs – Live at the Cafe Carlyle is one of the best cabaret records I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. Surprising but superb song selection, threaded through with a real sense of personality and personal revelation, draws the listener in right from the off, even if he storms just a fraction too quickly through Annie Lennox’s glorious solo hit ‘Why’, he next invests Keane’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ with a genuinely rueful quality that hints at what is to come.

And if the label ‘sappy’ might suggest something inconsequential, make no mistake that this is deeply emotional work. From Miley Cyrus’ ‘The Climb’ to the plangent ‘Complainte de la Butte’, to showier material that Cumming more obviously has an affinity with, like Kurt Weill’s ‘How Do Humans Live’ and the utterly gorgeous ‘You You You’ from Kander and Ebb’s The Visit, to the almost unbearable emotion underpinning the likes of Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’ and Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Dinner at Eight’.

His anecdotes also rise above the average due to their humour – Cyrus winning his respect, spoiling the mid-season finale of The Good Wife which was airing that night – their candour – that tattoo tale! – and the real insight that they provide to the song choices in the much more personal revelations of family history. Horne’s arrangements are beautiful throughout, making the absolute most of Eleanor Norton’s gorgeous cello playing, especially in the surprisingly beautiful Adele/Lady Gaga/Katy Perry mash-up.

So too in the irreverent Sondheim pisstake ‘No One Is Alive Not While I’m Around’, Cumming’s innate musicality, aided and abetted by Horne’s musical direction, just shines through. And none more so than in the affecting trifecta that closes this set – Billy Joel’s And So It Goes into Noël Coward’s If Love Were All into an eventually rousing take on Sondheim’s Ladies Who Lunch. It really just a superb record and one I highly recommend.

Ian Foster on Twitter
Ian Foster
Since 2003, Ian Foster has been writing reviews of plays, sometimes with a critical element, on his blog Ought to Be Clowns, which has been listed as one of the UK's Top Ten Theatre Blogs by Lastminute.com, Vuelio and Superbreak. He averages more than 350+ shows a year. He says: "Call me a reviewer, a critic or a blogger, and you will apparently put someone or other's nose out of joint! So take it or leave it, essentially this is my theatrical diary, recording everything I go to see at the theatre in London and beyond, and venturing a little into the worlds of music and film/TV where theatrical connections can be made."
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Ian Foster on Twitter
Ian Foster
Since 2003, Ian Foster has been writing reviews of plays, sometimes with a critical element, on his blog Ought to Be Clowns, which has been listed as one of the UK's Top Ten Theatre Blogs by Lastminute.com, Vuelio and Superbreak. He averages more than 350+ shows a year. He says: "Call me a reviewer, a critic or a blogger, and you will apparently put someone or other's nose out of joint! So take it or leave it, essentially this is my theatrical diary, recording everything I go to see at the theatre in London and beyond, and venturing a little into the worlds of music and film/TV where theatrical connections can be made."