Use Your Imagination


Is Heather Mac Rae, at 70, Cabaret’s Shiny New Star?
08/18/2017 04:05 pm ET

Heather Mac Rae is currently celebrating her 50th year in show business, and she’s celebrating it in an absolutely wonderful way: a multi-dimensional three-day turn at Mark Nadler’s new Beach Café cabaret room.
Declaring that she’s 70 and happy to say so, she is in part chronicling not only her show-biz career but also reminiscing about her life as the daughter of Gordon and Sheila MacRae. (You’ll have to ask her why some years ago she decided to separate the “Mac” from the “Rae” in her starry surname. Was she implying that for unrevealed reasons she needed to put space between her and the family?)
But with all the harking-back banter Mac Rae does—and even suggests it’s excessive (maybe it is, but this reviewer wouldn’t have wanted one word less)—the glowing achievement here is the singing.
Yes, it’s the singing for sure, but it’s also the acting. It’s very much the acting. Indeed, she gives the impression that she examines songs more as an actress than as a singer. (N. B.: She replaced Diane Keaton in the original Broadway production of Hair and was in the original production of Falsettos. She tells hilarious stories about playing Mary Magdalene in the first Los Angeles Jesus Christ Superstar production. Only last season she was Lola in a Come Back Little Sheba revival.)
Whatever Mac Rae sees when she delves into the material, she then delivers her intuitive findings unfiltered to the audience. I have no qualms in saying that hers is the best version of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” I have ever heard—or watched. (And I’ve heard plenty of ‘em.) She recognizes that the Porter lyric is a brilliant monologue about the never-ending effect of lost romance. She intersperses that great ballad with Porter’s “Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor).” She sees that reflective song as dictating that her “Begin the Beguine” must become the melancholy musings of a wealthy Upper East Side Manhattan woman.
Not by the way, Nadler put the medley together, as he did all the arrangements and then supplies the only accompaniment Mac Rae has—or needs. The two have worked together in various capacities since since 1988, and the collaboration is obviously a shining success for both.
Where Mac Rae’s “Begin the Beguine” was the best I’ve experienced—this after saying she’d never previously sung Porter songs—she also sent long splendid takes on three other songs, three takes it’ll be along time before I hear better than.
Two of the songs were braided into a medley of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and “America,” throughout which she again acted as if aiming at an Oscar or a Tony. When she’d finished, she quickly said that the songs were needed right now, and in the week after the Charlottesville, Virginia calamity she knew what she was talking about.
Perhaps even more moving was her including “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” Before singing it with an exquisite sense of the picture the lyric paints, she talked about having met Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II on the Oklahoma! set and about riding in the surrey with her father, who was playing Curley, of course. After she’d finished the lullaby-like third chorus with no more than a stage whisper, she seemed to wipe tears away. Was she remembering the surrey rides with her Dad, or was she simply finding her own emotions in Hammerstein’s superb lyric? A blend of both?
The set from beginning to end could be term eclectic, starting as it did with an odd medley of “Use Your Imagination,” “My Romance” and “Up on the Roof” (during which Mac Rae had pitch problems not encountered afterward). She ranged from the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson “Lost in the Stars,” which Gordon MacRae sang in his act, to a beach medley dedicated to her years as a wild teenager. She bumped up tempos on the Rodgers-Lorenz Hart “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and sang two songs—“One of Those Days” and “Hope Floats” (the encore) by longtime chums Michele Brourman and Amanda McBroom.
Watching Mac Rae entertain with such ease, intelligence and acting-singing skills, I wondered if anyone else in the packed room has the same stray thought I had, particularly when she mentioned Barbara Cook. Mac Rae, blond and not physically dissimilar from Cook, has—while entirely being her own engaging person—many of the traits that made Cook a cabaret idol. Use your imagination.

David Finkle, Contributor
Writer, Drama Critic