It seemed an odd coupling, Carol Channing and Rita Moreno doing a show called “Carol Channing and Rita Moreno: Two Ladies of Broadway.” After all, the two never appeared together on Broadway. What the title doesn’t tell you is that they still don’t. They are joined only by an intermission. These “Two Ladies of Broadway” share a bill, but not a stage. And each, backed by a big band and trading heavily on personal history, is doing something more accurately described as a solo club act than a stage show.
Moreno, who goes first, flanked by dancers Steven Mancuso and Robert Tatad, follows a format close to Chita Rivera’s “Chita.” There’s the singing, the dancing, the reminiscing, the kidding around. The links to Broadway are clear but the patter carefully customized, from the warm-up (“How you doin’?. . . . Let’s make this a party!”) to the asides complicitously aimed at the over-60 crowd that filled the McCallum Theatre on Thursday.
If it sounds like this act might do well in Las Vegas, it might, but Moreno has solid Broadway credentials and plenty of performance moxie with which to back them up. There’s the occasional dog (“I had to sleep with my husband to get this dress”) but for the most part, the chitchat sticks safely to Broadway lore and her Puerto Rican mother’s comic hurdles with the English language.
The music and dancing, however, are another matter. We get vivid, unflagging Moreno from the initial “Strike Up the Band,” through Anita telling us how much she likes to be in America (from the “West Side Story” movie), to the “11 o’clock number” (a medley of songs from “Gypsy,” “Cabaret” and others). It leaves us wishing someone would get this woman back to Broadway--and saddened to think there’s so little musical theater there to make it likely.
As for the larger-than-life Channing, her post-intermission act is a raucous extension of much of what she has done before. Between the resounding “Hello, Palm Desert,” that opened her segment of the show and the K mart “diamonds” that showered the audience at the end, there was a vast display of deja-vu: That “Little Girl From Little Rock” whose big rocks are still her best friends, lisping Cecilia Cissons who’s having trouble going from silent pictures to talkies, and savvy Maybelle Montgomery decked out in her jazzy pink gown and pink cloche hat.
The Broadway medleys are there, too (though only an orchestral hint of “Hello, Dolly!”), mixed with a “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” some “Homesick Blues” and an expendable “Calypso Pete.” The overwhelming emphasis is on nostalgia, with no references to anyone still living, including Melachrino Cigarettes.
This is fine as long as the cheerleading is kept in check and the patter refrains from becoming patronizing to the older audience. Being patronizing is not the intention but frequently the effect, a dichotomy reflected throughout the act. Channing careens maddeningly from a dumb-blonde kind of self-lampooning that can border on tasteless, to glimpses of the terrific performer she keeps hidden behind the mask.
One such glimpse comes in the often-told but hilarious account of her first meeting with Abe Lastfogel, the head of the William Morris Agency who became her agent, and in the Yiddish song she sang for him that got him to pay attention. She sings it here and one can see why. It brings a hush over the audience. In an evening otherwise filled with predictability, it shines with a far more genuine brightness than those tired diamonds from silly gentlemen who prefer blondes.
* “Two Ladies of Broadway,” Saturday, 8:30 p.m.: Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., (800) CONCERT, (818) 304-6161, (213) 480-3232; $21-$28.50. Sunday, 2 p.m.: Haugh Performing Arts Center, Citrus College, 1000 W. Foothill Blvd., Glendora, (818) 963-9411; $28. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.