Is there any greater theatrical thrill than surprise? One of the best surprises of the past five years came during a turgid evening at Carnegie Hall in New York, an occasion celebrating the anniversary of Judy Garland's historic 1961 concert there. As one B-grade performer after another offered a newer, less interesting form of self-aggrandizement, hurling oneself from the balcony seemed the only authentic way to honor Garland.
But then Lea DeLaria walked onstage. Most of the audience was only vaguely familiar with her. She was that brash comedian who had made history by running onto The Arsenio Hall Show screaming, "I'm a biiiiiig, faaaaaat dyyyyyyyyyyyyke!" and sending the audience into hysterics. She was a regular on the standup circuit and had made a few notable film appearances, including a riotous cameo in the lesbian-bar scene in The First Wives Club.
But here she was staking out new turf. She began with a bebop rendition of "Get Happy" that was jolting in its confidence -- she ran up and down the scat notes like a supermodel on a Stairmaster, tossed around Harold Arlen's melody as though she had written it and almost melted the walls as she beamed with the pure joy of performing. She followed this with an electric anecdote about how the Judy at Carnegie Hall album got her her first apartment in New York, expertly telegraphing to the audience, "Surprise! Within this big ol' brash dyke body, I'm one of you!" If she'd walked off then, she would have taken away most of the audiences' hearts, but in a truly dangerous act, she remained onstage and crooned a mesmerizing and plaintive version of "Alone Together," a dark and brooding ballad not for the faint of ability. She nailed it and in the process revealed a profound natural instinct for phrasing, the key to singing that simply can't be taught. When she was done, the response was thunderous, and suddenly a jaded crowd was alive with the joy of real, pure, unmistakable, oh-my-God-there-it-is talent.
A similar reaction was elicited later that fall when the New York critics hailed DeLaria's Broadway debut in a revival of On the Town. In a part originated by Nancy Walker, DeLaria played the horny cabdriver Hildy, and she stole the show. Writing about her performance, the reviewers gushed: "A phenomenon" (The New Yorker); "There's an electric buzz when she's on-stage" (New York Times); "A star is born" (Entertainment Weekly).
This Friday, St. Louis will get a rare chance to experience DeLaria when she performs her acclaimed cabaret act It's Delightful, It's Delicious, It's DeLaria at the Symphony School of Music.
And are you ready for this? DeLaria is a local girl, from Belleville, Ill. Yeah, that nowhere land across the river can claim her as a daughter, and she's the first to admit it. "I've always said there's something in Stag beer, because I've met a lot of gays and lesbians from Belleville," she relays in a phone interview from her New York apartment. "Three years ago, I'm in Paris, at the Arc de Triomphe, and there's these two cute young guys there, and so I look at them, they look at me, and we know the story, and they ask if I'd take their picture, which I do. We chat, and they're from BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLEVILLE!"
The riff just goes: "I went to Belleville West; we were the Fighting Maroons. Go 'Roons! Do you know how frightening it was, cheering for a color? How did I get here from Belleville? Oh, I don't know. My parents have impeccable taste -- my dad is a jazz musician, and they love old movies, so they taught me all of the good stuff. But it was always an ugly fight: "Do we watch Bonanza or The Judy Garland Show?' And there I was, in Belleville, sneaking down to the television at 3 in the morning to watch Bette Davis in Now, Voyager. Can you imagine?"
With the world of musical theater now wide open to her, DeLaria has sampled a lot. She appeared again at Carnegie Hall in a PBS tribute to Broadway's leading ladies, to be broadcast in December. ("So I'm standing onstage next to Julie Andrews, Liza, Jennifer Holliday and these other dames in 40-pound beaded gowns, and I'm thinkin', "One of these things is not like the other.'") She rocked City Center as Marryin' Sam in a revival of Li'l Abner, toured as Mama Morton in Chicago and knocked out the Hollywood Bowl with her version of "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy. Typical of her career, she's turning the fact that she is not easily categorized into an asset. Her wish list of parts runs the pansexual gamut: Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls; anything Ethel Merman played, particularly Annie Get Your Gun; King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar; Mama Rose in Gypsy;Wonderful Town. "Until someone turns She-Devil into a musical, there's no real obvious choice for me out there," she laughs. "I'll always be grateful because (On the Town director) George Wolfe ignored the fact that I had been to many people "only a standup,' and he said, "I don't care what she's done in the past, she's my Hildy.' George believes it's all about the talent on the stage.
"But it's so tough right now," she openly laments. "Broadway has gone sort of corporate, and there's not much room for inventive shows. I mean, c'mon! Saturday Night Fever is the worst fuckin' musical of my life, and it's holdin' up a theater from good shows. But workin' standup for 16 years -- which was a good, steady living -- I learned to be patient. Standup teaches you how to say, "Fuck it,' which is an actor's most important tool. Acting is listening."
Mark these words: There's going to be a lot of listening to Lea DeLaria in the coming decades. Catch her Friday night so you can say, "I was there when."
It's Delightful, It's Delicious, It's DeLaria is performed at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 19, at the Symphony School of Music, 560 Trinity Ave. Call 421-4400 for tickets.