It might have been a skit from the old “Carol Burnett Show”: a woman marching in a Salvation Army band lets out a huge, high-pitched sneeze, doffs her uniform and steps into the spotlight wearing a spangly Bob Mackie gown.
But not this time. This was Carol Burnett in her premiere appearance at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, and the audience was loving it. No sooner had the actress/comedian sung the first bars of “Adelaide’s Lament” (from “Guys and Dolls”) than the 3,000-strong crowd applauded wildly, howling every time she sniffed, “a poihson can develop a cold.”
Burnett’s appearance with singer/actor Hal Linden in the William Hall Master Chorale’s “The Best of Broadway” program on Saturday and Sunday was a chorale coup.
The star doesn’t take to the concert stage easily, confided her good friend Bob Wright, a chorale member who was once a producer of the “The Carol Burnett Show.”
“When I asked her to do this appearance, she said: ‘You know I’ll do anything for you, but I’m not a concert singer,’ ” Wright said. “She said she couldn’t just walk on stage and have someone say, ‘Here’s Carol Burnett!’ and sing a song. It just wasn’t her.”
So a “reveal” was developed for Burnett, 63, who garnered a Tony Award nomination last year for her performance in the Broadway comedy “Moon Over Buffalo.”
To get onstage, she’d pretend to be a member of the Salvation Army band, then break away from the lineup to launch her “Guys and Dolls” duet with Linden, 66.
Also included in the show were chorale tributes to composers Irving Berlin (“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”) Cole Porter (“Let’s Fall in Love,” “Night and Day,” “Anything Goes”) and Rodgers & Hammerstein (a medley from “South Pacific”).
Burnett and Linden capped the evening with a “History of Musical Comedy,” a fast-paced duet developed by songwriters Ken and Mitzi Welch for a TV show Burnett did with Sammy Davis Jr. in the ‘70s.
(Ken Welch helped launch Burnett’s TV career by writing for her the nightclub comedy song “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles.” In 1957, she performed it on three network variety shows--twice on the “The Jack Paar Show” and once on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”)
After her performance Saturday, Burnett mingled with chorale supporters during a benefit dessert reception at the Center Club in Costa Mesa.
“What a beautiful venue,” Burnett said of Segerstrom Hall. “I came here a few months ago to see Patti Lupone, and, even when she sang without a mike, she sounded wonderful.”
That’s when Burnett decided to say yes to the invitation to perform with the Master Chorale, Wright said. Since then, Burnett and Linden--along with William Hall--have been knee-deep in rehearsals.
Last week the trio rehearsed in Burnett’s old hall at CBS, Hall said. “And of course, everybody at CBS went crazy because she was back home. I was so thrilled to be there, I felt like a kid.”
Working with a TV icon like Burnett--she’s a five-time Emmy Award winner--was nerve-racking, Hall admitted during Saturday’s post-concert reception. “It’s an awesome responsibility,” he said. “I was scared to death. If you’d shook my hand before I came on, it was ice cold.
“I wanted to make sure I followed [Burnett and Linden], supported them. It was a great evening, and I think we made a few new friends for the chorale.”
Besides his duets with Burnett, Linden performed on the clarinet (“Adios,” “Don’t Be That Way”), asking members of the audience to think about the famous Carnegie Hall concert of 1936 when Benny Goodman performed with drummer Gene Krupa. Linden said he never planned to be a musical comedy star, or a TV star for that matter. “I wanted to be Benny Goodman!”
Later, Jerry Mandel, president of the Performing Arts Center, called Linden’s clarinet playing a highlight of the production. “I grew up listening to that Carnegie Hall concert,” said Mandel, who plays the saxophone. “That’s what my dad taught me swing music on. It was the first record I ever heard as a kid.”
During downtime on Sunday, Linden and Burnett chose different ways to relax. He played golf at Big Canyon Country Club with chorale supporters Gail and Ron Soderling of Newport Beach.
She remained in her hotel room to relax, rest her voice. “I just shut up!” Burnett said, laughing. “That’s easy for me. I’m really very quiet.”
There would be no shopping or sightseeing, she said. “Just the Times crossword puzzle.”
Shanti benefit: Entertainer Michael Feinstein has agreed to perform when he is honored Saturday during a 10th anniversary benefit for Laguna Shanti, a nonprofit social service agency that assists persons living with HIV and AIDS.
Feinstein, a music scholar who has built a career around his piano renditions of pop standards, will be honored with movie actor Nathan Lane (“Birdcage”) and TV actress Judith Light (“Who’s the Boss?”).
“Laguna Shanti is one of those organizations that are very important,” said Feinstein in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. “I received a letter asking me if I would be able to participate in the evening by being honored.”
Socially, he tries to keep a low profile, he said.
“But what this comes down to is being able to assist somebody by showing up,” said Feinstein, who has appeared at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. “How can I say no?”
Tickets for the benefit--at Shame on the Moon restaurant in Laguna Beach--include a buffet dinner. For information, call (714) 494-1446.