Arts » Performing Arts

Give 'Em That Older Razzle Dazzle

Catching up with Channing and NASCAR



Selling a song or hitting a punch line, the voice of Carol Channing isn't as strong or youthful as it was back in the days when she starred on Broadway in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! But as we heard at Halton Theater last week, thanks to some silky amplification, the sound of the Channing voice is instantly recognizable.

Holding a note just slightly in "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," Channing still bestows a nasality to the first syllable of "diamonds" that you won't find in any dictionary. Any word she caresses with her signature rasp seems to crinkle in your ear like some icy object coming out of Saran Wrap.

And of course, as we witnessed at great length in An Evening With Carol Channing: The First 80 Years Are the Hardest, the dazzle of the comedienne's vast mouth, teeth and smile is almost entirely undimmed, still in the elite Louis Armstrong-Mick Jagger class. Much of the humor, as always, comes from a finely cultivated ditziness.

Indulging in some light self-deprecation, Channing chose the hucksterish "Razzle Dazzle" from Chicago for what felt like an encore after 40 Northwest School of the Arts students joined her on stage for the obligatory Dolly Levi extravaganza. But no matter what Billy Flynn's lyrics say, Channing has never lacked for talent.

In fact, First 80 Years served as a reminder that Channing, besides portraying herself superbly, possesses outstanding powers of mimicry. For a new generation, her spot-on imitation of Julie Andrews would be revelatory. The Sophie Tucker -- for oldsters only -- was also pretty damn good.

The prevailing shtick has subtly evolved. Now that she's a certifiable octogenarian, there's a doddering element in the ditziness. So while there's a residue of Judy Garland in the calculated stammerings -- and the sentences that trail off midway on the path to coherent thought -- there's also a fresh infusion of Marian Lorne confusion. That makes an effective contrast when Channing suddenly narrows her eyes and thrusts home, a la Carol Burnett.

On the other hand, Channing's years give her license to occasionally reveal her education and acuity. She describes Tucker, for example, as "born in fourth position." Her advice to actors was more treasurable, suggesting that they look for "the spine" of every good play.

Then she ably illustrated the point, becoming Dolly in her climactic monologue addressed to her dead husband Efram -- a tender intro to "Before the Parade Passes By."

Of course, there's still plenty of vintage Channing out there besides her signature songs. Two of the goofball songs now purported to have comprised the naif's fresh-out-of-Bennington College audition at the William Morris Agency were, if memory serves, staples of Channing's talk show appearances way back before Dolly.

I'm almost sure I've heard the "Gaelic dirge" and the "Haitian corn-grinding song" before. But hearing Channing take on that Yiddish number afterwards, complete with guttural sounds, nearly put me on the floor. And surely Channing's evocation of hapless silent film actress Cicely Sisson -- whose inability to pass an "s" through her lips without a whistle slew her career -- was nearly as lethal. So what if Cicely never existed!?

When things got messy in the "Hello, Dolly!" finale, Channing's evening-long dithering stood her in good stead -- particularly when all our gifted NW students maintained their poise. The snafu was just another comical glitch. Aside from the "Parade" segment, houselights never went down, so all through her performance, those saucer eyes roamed the audience, making contact. She was obviously eating it up, leaving no doubt why Carol Channing is still on stage at 85.

Hey, look. Some of my neighbors -- and yours -- go to the big NASCAR events to watch the spectacular car wrecks. Stands to reason I should go and watch NASCAR Stand-Up comedians crash and burn at the Comedy Zone.

But you know what? Nearly all of the lineup at last week's comic marathon were examples of intelligent life.

I particularly enjoyed the brash antics of John Wesley Austin and the skewed coke-head viewpoint of Winston-Salem comedian Chris Wiles, nicely complemented by his hyperkinetic delivery. But of course, you're dying to hear what a NASCAR comedian pokes fun at.

Most popular targets by far are champion driver Jeff Gordon and the clientele who attend NASCAR events at Talladega Superspeedway. These Alabama fans, I gather, are not as averse to beer as they are to clothing.

As for Gordon, winning races more frequently than Earnhardt père or fils, marrying a trophy wife and speaking plain English without a drawl all seem to have been career moves that backfired. Repeatedly, the terminally clean-cut lad was assailed with the charge of being gay.

That didn't prevent a couple of the comics from coming on to NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray as he enjoyed the show from the VIP table. All in good clean fun.

Thankfully, all 12 of the comedians ranged away from NASCAR, including emcee Rory Karpf, senior producer of NASCAR Images. But there were no mentions of the NSA or the Bush Administration, let alone FEMA or the War in Iraq. Guess W's approval ratings would have to fall into the teens before those topics were considered safe game. Mercy.

Nevertheless, there was only one true flop last Wednesday, namely Red Hott. This genial Texan gazed in awe at the NASCAR luminaries at the front table, got a bit discouraged by some groans from the gallery, and quickly folded his tent before his allotted seven minutes were up.

Otherwise, the most memorable gaffes came from David L, an avowed Tarheel fan. Perhaps he might shelve his anti-Duke rant for awhile. Equally puzzling, coming from an African-American, were his antagonism toward New Yorkers and his "Go home, Yankee" attitude. L may have skipped class when they were studying the Civil War. I'm sure a descendent of the Union dead would be happy to catch him up.

If management at the Comedy Zone don't have their ears to the ground on politics, you can't accuse them of lacking business smarts. When I last visited CZ out on Independence Boulevard, it was one seedy tenuous enterprise. From what I saw last week, they've made a goldmine out of their new location off College Street. The place was SRO with a vibrant young demographic.

Favorite one-liner of the night came from Al Ernst, ragging on decrepit Florida retirees: He reportedly told one of them to act her age. So she died.

David L, by the way, was the Comedy Zone headliner over the Memorial Day weekend. Sorry if this warning comes too late.

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