Alan Cumming has a tattoo on his arm saying: “Only connect”. A famous quote from E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, expressing Margaret’s longing for people to reach out and truly communicate with each other, it has become his mantra as a performer. In his cabaret show Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, he does just that – connecting with the audience through a wide-ranging set of stories, some of them deeply revealing and others hilariously naughty, along with a wildly eclectic mix of songs that he makes his own.

Alan CummingAlan Cumming. Photograph: supplied

Radiating oodles of charm, with a twinkle in the eye that lights up the stage, Cumming is a natural showman.  Marrying a flirty-dirty sense of humour, a camp sensibility, an unashamed sentimentality and a raw emotional honesty, he has you laughing one minute and wiping a tear away the next – the perfect combo for a seductively entertaining cabaret show.

By the end of the evening we feel that he’s shared enough of himself to have given us an insight into what makes him tick, and a taste of what it would be like to be a friend of his. I bet I wasn’t alone in wishing I could hang out him in his dressing room club, Club Cumming – which, as he explains, was where the idea for this show began.

When it comes to tattoos, Cumming used to have another one on his groin for altogether different reasons, the story of which makes for a hysterically funny anecdote – just one of many in the show.

The pansexual, pixie-like Scottish-born actor, whose numerous credits include the Emcee in Sam Mendes’ West End and Broadway productions of Cabaret, and Eli Gold in the CBS TV series The Good Wife, has performed Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs in Australia before.

Though essentially the same, it’s morphed a little since then. At one point, he reads a poem about US President Donald Trump written in the style of Robert Burns, sent to him earlier this year on Twitter, which begins “You eunuch of thought” and gets progressively more colourful from there. In the US the odd person has booed, Cumming tells us. With an eloquently raised eyebrow, he expresses amazement that a Trump supporter would have come to see him in the first place (Cumming makes no bones about his political persuasion) before adding a tongue-in-cheek but lethal take-down.

Accompanied by a three-piece band led by Musical Director Lance Horne on piano, Cumming opens the show with Annie Lennox’s Why, followed by Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know. From there the music ranges freely taking in everything from Avril Lavigne’s Complicated to a Scottish ode called Mother Glasgow, a snarling rendition of Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling from The Threepenny Opera, an Adele/Lady Gaga/Katy Perry mash-up and even a perky little jingle he and Horne co-wrote for a condom commercial.

The opening chords of Miley Cyrus’s The Climb elicited a few giggles from the audience, but these quickly subsided as Cumming made the song his own. With a new arrangement by Horne, and Cumming’s gentle Scottish burr, it was as if we were hearing the song afresh. In fact, no matter what he’s singing, he connects so intensely with the lyric that he finds the emotional heart of the song and draws you into his interpretation.

Musical theatre fans whooped and cheered at a cheeky Sondheim medley, with which Cumming illustrated his argument that the revered composer/lyricist keeps recycling the same tune. Sondheim, he tells us, didn’t take offense but, to his suprise, gave him permission to include it on a recording of the show.

His stories cover plenty of emotional ground from his moving account of the discovery of his grandfather’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to a deliciously funny tale about Liza Minnelli. Unleashing his Eli Gold accent at one point when discussing The Good Wife, he sent people around me into paroxysms of delight. At the other end of the spectrum, after talking ahout his father’s violent, abusive nature, he launches into a blistering rendition of Dinner at Eight by Rufus Wainwright (who also had a difficult relationship with his father), which left Cumming himself teary – and he wasn’t alone. After an amusing riff about encores, he ends the show with Noël Coward’s wistful If Love Were All and Sondheim’s acerbic The Ladies Who Lunch.

Apparently, this tour will be the last time Cumming performs the show. If you’re remotely interested in seeing it, don’t miss out. It’s cabaret gold.


Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs plays at the Astor Theatre, Perth on June 13; Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane as part of Queensland Cabaret Festival on June 15, and Comedy Theatre, Melbourne on June 16.

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