THEATRE With David Benedict
Saturday 15 February 1997
You're casting a play about a jazz musician. The actress playing his wife has to convince as a band singer. Problem: you're playing a cabaret- sized venue so that rules out Kim Criswell. Wrong. The Broadway broad with the biggest belt this side of the late stenographer from Astoria, Ethel Zimmerman (that's Miss Merman to you) is taking time out to appear in the British premiere of Carson Kreitzer's The Slow Drag.
Criswell made her British debut with a two-week engagement at the Shaw six years ago. Her performances of songs from the shows made audiences forget they were in one of the least hospitable theatres ever built, while her rip 'em up version of "Another Mr. Right Left" scorched the walls. She lassooed an Olivier nomination for Annie Get Your Gun, shredding memories of an earlier revival known to cast members as "Annie Get Your P45". If you've never had the pleasure, check out her fabulously inventive Lois Lane in the complete Kiss Me Kate on EMI with Cole Porter's hymn to flirting, "Always True to You In My Fashion".
Last year, she endeared herself to audiences playing Mona Kent, the Lady Macbeth of 42nd Street in the spoof musical comedy Dames at Sea at the Ambassadors Theatre before that tiny venue was split into the two tinier Royal Court spaces. Now she's moving into the even more intimate Freedom Cafe to play the wife of real-life musician Billy Tipton, father of three, who died in 1989. Those expecting another standard perky musical performance from Criswell will be surprised. She's still singing, including classics like Oscar Levant's heartbreaker "Blame It On My Youth"
or the torchy "More than You Know", but bear in mind that on Billy's death, the coroner broke the news to the Tipton children that their father was in fact a woman. Reminds one of "Kate the Great", the little- known Cole Porter song that Criswell has recorded: "She made the bride, she made the groom/ She made the maid that made the room..."
Kreitzer's play is inspired by the story rather than doggedly sticking to the literal truth of the tale of the Big Band era of the 1930s and 40s when women didn't play instruments in the band but were consigned to the role of girl singers at the front of the stage. Unlike now, when bands are full of women. I mean Blur and Oasis... But hey! I forgot. We have equality these days. Let's hear it for those great musicians, the Spice Girls...
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