The Duchess of York Speaks Out About the Queen

Living high with Sondheim. Other heroes include Sean Hayes, Denzel. On the other hand, Kelsey Grammer . . .

Sarah Ferguson—you know, the Duchess of York—hosted a high tea to promote the DVD/Blu-ray release of Young Victoria, the nattily attired historical film that she co-produced last year when we needed a jolt of royal splendor.

Alas, she's not terribly familiar with this queen.

"Where do you work?" she asked on introduction at the Mandarin Oriental event. "The Village Voice," I informed her. "And what is that?" she responded, sincerely. Rather than snap my fingers at a duchess's face, I said, "A weekly paper that's been around for 55 years." "I've only been here for 50 years," she cracked. And after that, we hit it off like gangbusters!

Fergie on the Queen: "You'd love her!"
Fergie on the Queen: "You'd love her!"

Fergie—not to be confused with the rock star with the body fluids—is prone to fun pronouncements like, "I married a man, a sailor, and a prince, and got a country" and (to a little girl at the table) "Tinkerbell always must exist in you at all times!"

But we'd been assembled to talk Young Victoria, not Peter Pan, so Fergie dutifully explained her role in that project: "I helped with the castles and palaces—that's my thing. And I made sure it was historically correct and all filmed in Britain." "Pittsburgh somehow wouldn't have been quite right," I chirped, and she politely laughed.

But Fergie adores it here and said, "The American people saved my life. When Britain threw me out, they embraced me. They didn't really throw me out, but it was hard to live in a country with such bad press and defamation of character." You're welcome, honey!

But her highest praise of all went to Queen Elizabeth II because "she's not only the best grandmother to my children, but she's the one I'd most like to sit next to at dinner. You'd love her! You'd walk away wanting to hug her. You'd forget you're talking to the queen!" But she wouldn't.

Speaking of which, his highness Kelsey Grammer promotes gay marriage every night in La Cage aux Folles, in which he kisses his bejeweled male partner and even says some heavy-handed new line referring to the awfulness of Proposition 8 as the audience cheers. You'd think that Tinkerbell exists in him at all times—but offstage, as you know, he's a Republican! I recently cut Kelsey some slack about that because he told New York magazine that whoever gays marry is not his issue and the government shouldn't get involved—a fairly cool response regardless of party. But then it was reported that he's behind that right-wing network that's arisen because Fox is too liberal! The kind of network that will surely try to keep gays not only single but shackled to the plantation! Featuring the very same pundits that helped get Prop. 8 passed! Talk about mixed messages. To paraphrase a La Cage song: Does he want praise? Does he want pity?

In other ambiguous theater news, there's finally a new Sondheim show! Consisting of his old songs! But at least Sondheim on Sondheim goes for a lot of his darker, more obscure, sometimes downright axed-on-the-road numbers, so there's a real sense of discovery here, even if some of the cut songs turn out to have deserved it. And at least there are more black people—two—than in a usual Sondheim show, and way more gay action than ever before. (You haven't lived until you've seen Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams singing a love song to each other. I'm serious!)

The sleek, classy revue feels good for you, like spinach, but it tastes good, too—and the geometric set that keeps morphing to accommodate Sondheim's talking head is a marvel of design that's the perfect visual accompaniment to his fertile mind. It's just weird that, 10 seconds after Cook says, "Let's turn him off and sing the songs," he pops up on a screen to blab some more!

(Side rant: It's also weird that nowadays, cheapo musicals get praised for their "artistic innovation" and "humanity," and shameless tourist attractions are celebrated for their "spunk," but this show is lambasted for being too "insidery"—i.e., too sophisticated and basically too good! I give up, kids.)

Promises, Promises practically becomes a Bacharach and David revue with the bizarre interpolation of two hit songs that turn Kristin Chenoweth's character into a serial self-pitier on pop dirge alert. Fine whining quickly turns to flat champagne. What's worse, playing the original Rachel Uchitel minus the settlement, the misplaced Chenoweth mopes around with such perfect hair and fortitude that when she attempts suicide, you hope her nails don't get chipped.

The show's strangest aspect is that her character—the cafeteria worker sleeping with the married boss—is held up as the height of decency. Even if she is, she comes off so drippy here that the bar floozy Sean Hayes's character meets for some drunken fun is easily the one you root for him to be with!

Thank God Hayes has charm and a swell way with shtick (like sitting in a chair with a hole in it or mistakenly putting eye drops in his nose) and as the floozy, Katie Finneran goes for broke with a performance that connects, commits, and entertains. Thanks to them, the show isn't a total turkey lurkey, but as long as the creators were arbitrarily sticking songs into it, why not have Aretha Franklin or Dionne Warwick come out and do them?

Meanwhile, I'm glad they got Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to do Fences, and though all through the first act I was smugly thinking, "Please! I saw the original with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice," I dropped it for the second half, when the power kicks in as Denzel's character drives his family apart with pigheaded pride. The way it reforms itself is especially glorious theater.

The revival of Collected Stories pits Linda Lavin against Sarah Paulson as a mentor and a protégé in a tense artistic discourse carried on in very close quarters. It's Red with ladies and way more books on the shelves. Their power struggle makes for stimulating talk, and Lavin gives the whole thing extra heft with classic readings of lines like, "Things were different when I was ovulating."

In testosterone-laden news, I hear Constantine Maroulis is getting an arm and a leg to do the upcoming tour of Rock of Ages, which should help him feel like less of a Foreigner as he takes the Speedwagon on his Journey across the Styx.

And what of my own theater-related journey last week, with Tinkerbell way up inside me? Well, I was halfway through a zombie movie—watching it, that is—when I got an emergency call asking if I could fill in for the otherwise engaged Jackie Hoffman as a judge at the Broadway Beauty Pageant, benefiting the Ali Forney Center. I raced out of zombieland to Symphony Space, where five comely Broadway performers paraded around for me, fellow judges Charles Busch and Christine Ebersole, and host Tovah Feldshuh, as we sat back and rated their assets. In the talent competition, the contestant from In the Heights scored with Mo'Nique's climactic monologue from Precious while wearing gold-lamé hot pants and a zebra-print headwrap—exactly what Mo'Nique wore in the movie, as I assured Ebersole. Also scoring, the West Side Story guy sang an acoustic medley of Lady Gaga hits in jeans, a plaid shirt, and no menstrual blood whatsoever. But the big winner was a chorus boy from Memphis who spun around to "The Main Event," looked hot in a blue Speedo, and spoke in full sentences. He was a man, a sailor, a prince, and a country!

musto@villagevoice.com

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