Russell- predictable but adorable showIt was a great evening for Anna Russell. The British raconteuse, now over 70 years old, was rewarded with long standing ovations for her performance. This was her Boston farewell concert.
The applause far exceeded any I have heard in three years of going to Symphony Hall. It reflected on the dowager's infectious vivacity, not only on the warmth of her popularity.
In a bright pink gown draping her ample body, and bathed in the purple aura of the stage lights, Russell dominated the stage needing no help from the Steinway grand.
She parodied almost anything that could be sung. She started with German lieder and German drinking songs. The latter were accompanied, of course, by extensive pantomime of beer-drinking and thigh-slapping. In a similar spirit she sang her version of a Russian folk song christened Da, Nyet, -- "our rough equivalent of `Let's do it"' she could not restrain from remarking.
A French romantic chansonette followed: the heroine smokes her first cigarette with her first lover after "the first time." Twenty years later she smokes her last cigarette, apparently suffering from tuberculosis. By the tenth repetition of "ma derniere cigarrette" spontaneous laughter rose in the audience at the mere anticipation of the words.
Madrigals, English popular songs, Gilbert and Sullivan operas set in upper-class New York, and even the bagpipe, did not escape Russell's inexhorable drive for laughter.
The second half was "dedicated" to Wagner's Ring. The particular character of Wagnerian music makes it especially vulnerable to Russell's humor. Throughout her career, therefore, this "number" became a Russell trademark.
Accompanying herself at the piano, she recounted the operatic story. She finished off the prelude with one chord, repeated several times. By the fourth repetition the audience was cheering, and Russell turned around with a perfectly straight face: "If you know the chord of E-flat major you know the whole prelude."
The rest of the description was strewn with similar biting remarks. Siegfried and the Valkyries inspired her the most.
The frosting on the cake was an English popular song, for which Russell, gesticulating widely, insisted on audience participation. The refrain involved several not quite "proper" sounds. It was quite an experience to hear Symphony Hall subscribers produce such sounds in unison.
But despite her popularity with the audience, Russell's wit all too rapidly evaporated on me: I was overcome with a certain sadness and boredom when, by the end of the evening, I could all too easily predict Russell's jokes. The actress perpetuates the conventionalism she laughs at, and does little more. But maybe that's the idea.