Ebersole dazzles in a show of strengths

Special to The Times

Admirers of unique artistry should race to the Orange County Performing Arts Center to catch Christine Ebersole's splendid club act in its limited engagement. The Tony Award-winning performer offers a demonstration of cabaret finesse the likes of which Founders Hall hasn't seen since Polly Bergen's magnificent turn last October.

Ebersole is probably most familiar to audiences from her film and TV work, including "Amadeus," "Tootsie," "One Life to Live" and the televised "Gypsy" (as stripper Tessie Tura).

But it is Ebersole's stage and lounge work that reveals her remarkable versatility and intelligence. These qualities permeate her endearing persona, which combines aspects of sexy leading lady, savvy character actress and loopy comedian.

Then there is Ebersole's warm soprano, a glossy instrument to rank alongside the best voices in Broadway history. You want soaring, straight-toned torching? Listen to Ebersole tear into "The Man That Got Away," and you'll wonder if anyone since Judy Garland has invested the song with so much power.

Ebersole has few peers at finding something new in old standards. In her hands, Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse's "Bill" is not the usual sob story, but a light-handed and delightful tribute to her husband.

Conversely, Ebersole's anthem-like "Lullaby of Broadway" from "42nd Street" (the show for which she received her 2001 Tony) goes for the emotional jugular, in stunning fashion.

She has a jazz musician's improvisational flair, as in her hip version of "My Ship," with a trumpet imitation midway that stops the show. Nor does Ebersole slight lyricism. Burrowing deep within Maury Yeston's gorgeous "New Words," which she dedicates to her children, the interpretation is as delicate as the legato is seamless.

Ebersole's comic instincts are brilliant. Whether channeling the great Ruth Draper in an excerpt from the monologue "The Italian Lesson," frolicking in the Doris Day specialty "Shanghai" or delivering a sidesplitting "Beyond the Blue Horizon," her zany glee is irresistible.

As is Ebersole's ability to communicate with a crowd, and the pleasure she derives from it. Her patter about her unconventional life plays like a blithe coffee klatch. And her renditions of Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" and Cole Porter's "I Happen to Like New York" jerk tears without trying, through her uncluttered eloquence.

Musical director Bette Sussman, bassist John Smith and guitarist Joe Jewell supply smashing support for Ebersole throughout, as does director Scott Wittman.

At one point, during a reminiscence of family matters, Ebersole plays a tape of herself at age 3 singing "Jingle Bells." The glow in her eyes as she listens to the chirping cherub she was is reflected in the eyes of her enchanted audience and defines what is, finally, most special about Ebersole: her humanity.


'Christine Ebersole in Concert'

Where: Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Today-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Ends: Saturday

Price: $49

Info: (714) 740-7878 or (213) 365-3500

Running time: 75 minutes

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